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by Jackie Mader

[Editor’s Note: The following article was published online by the Hechinger Report, and is reprinted with the author and organization’s permission. Even though the editors chose only to mention the American Montessori Society and the Association Montessori Internationale, and left out the International Montessori Council, we appreciate the author’s message, which addresses the sometimes awkward issue of Montessori Inspired programs in contratc to fully implemented Montessori education.]

When schools slap the ‘Montessori’ name on their buildings, parents often don’t know what they’re getting.

Austin, Texas — Mallory Foster was relieved when she, her husband and her stepson’s mother agreed that a local Montessori school would be the right fit for their 4-year-old. They weren’t specifically looking for a Montessori program, but that style of learning appealed to the three parents; it was a sort of added bonus to a school that advertised itself as a “Montessori garden” where kids would spend most of their time outside. Located in a south Austin home, the daycare center boasted more than half an acre of land for children to explore and on which they could grow vegetables in their own gardening plots. Inside, the living room was filled with wooden toys that Foster was told were Montessori supplies.

Foster’s experience in finding a “Montessori school” that didn’t actually adhere to Montessori ideals is not unique. At a time when many critics of public schools say young children are pushed into academics too quickly and don’t get much time to play, the Montessori approach appeals to parents – and schools are quick to take advantage of that interest. Even Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has been impressed by the idea of Montessori, recently dedicating $2 billion to a fund that will support, among other things, the creation of a Montessori-inspired chain of schools.

But many critics have pointed out that “Montessori-inspired” does not guarantee authentic Montessori.

Montessori is not a trademarked name, which means it is a label often given to thousands of daycares and preschools across the country — whether or not they follow the Montessori method. This can mislead parents who are not aware that all Montessori schools are not created equal. “We Montessorians call that ‘Monte-somethings,’” said Sandra Karnstadt, founder of Lake Hills Montessori, an American Montessori Society member school in the Texas hill country just west of Austin. “We don’t know what they are.”

But after only a few months, Foster started to have concerns about the school’s safety and the quality of the education. Long emails from the director, the only adult on site, came during the middle of the day while the children were awake. Foster wondered how the woman could monitor children while writing. And Foster’s stepson didn’t seem to be learning much. Around Christmas, he told Foster he was spending his days sitting in a room playing with puzzles alone while the other kids were outside. When Foster confronted the owner, she refused to let Foster into the school and wouldn’t sit down for a parent-teacher conference. The parents pulled their child out of the school. A few months later they enrolled him in a public preschool program through their local school district. Within a year, and after multiple bad reviews on social media sites, the self-described Montessori school closed and the owner left town.

“This woman was not interested in Montessori education,” Foster said on a recent afternoon. “She was really just trying to exploit it.” Now, several years later, after pursuing a degree in psychology and taking courses in child development, Foster is more educated about Montessori education and realizes little about the “Montessori garden” actually adhered to Montessori practice. “It’s an attractive label to set your little private daycare apart from the umpteen other ones that are within a mile radius of yours,” Foster said

A Google search of preschools in any major city will return dozens of “Montessori” schools, but that doesn’t mean the schools follow the teachings of the method’s founder, Maria Montessori, or feature some of the key classroom tenets of Montessori — like an uninterrupted three-hour “work time” — or have teachers trained by an accredited Montessori teacher-training program. And even fewer schools are affiliated with an accrediting organization, like the American Montessori Society or the Association Montessori International, which some experts say is the only way to guarantee the highest level of authenticity. Out of more than 4,000 so-called Montessori schools across the country, only 1,250 are affiliated with the American Montessori Society (and only 204 are AMS-accredited) and about 220 are recognized by AMI. (Editors Note: There are other, well respected Montessori organizations as well. The third largest is our affiliated International Montessori Council.)

For parents, the free use of the Montessori name could mean the “Montessori” program in which their child is enrolled will not provide the type of education they want or expect. And some Montessori advocates say this indiscriminate use of the word is damaging to the Montessori reputation and approach, which has been proven to lead to academic benefits for young kids.

For years, many middle- and upper-class parents have clamored for spots in private Montessori preschools. These programs, when done right, are led by specially trained teachers who preside over multi-age classrooms in which self-discipline is encouraged and which feature unique materials that aren’t seen in other preschools. Many parents think a Montessori education encourages creativity and benefits children by providing unique teaching methods aimed at respecting young children and giving kids more control of their learning.

Supporters say the Montessori approach gives children the materials and time to learn independently and at their own pace. It strives to teach peace education, help children develop concentration and to learn without the promise of extrinsic rewards or grades. This approach helps children “develop a love of learning,” said Rachel Rodriguez, a certified Montessori teacher at Hill Country Montessori just north of San Antonio, Texas. “It honors each child’s interests and sparks that sense of wonder so learning sounds really good to them.”

5 things to look for in your child’s Montessori school:

1. Trained teachers: Teachers should be trained in the age group they teach by a teacher-preparation program accredited by the Montessori Accreditation Council for Teacher Education.