Montessori education is about to get a significant jumpstart in the form of $1 billion from Jeff Bezos, the wealthiest man in the world.

That means the release of a new book on Montessori is well timed. In it, Mira Debs — now the director of Yale’s education studies program — traces the history of Montessori education and describes the experiences of families and educators at two Montessori magnet schools in Hartford, Connecticut.

Montessori can both contribute to and ameliorate school segregation, she points out in “Diverse Families, Desirable Schools” — and the programs offer a vivid example of how affluent families are able to prioritize finding a “good fit” school, while low-income families struggle to just find a decent option.

Mira Debs

“Montessori’s appeal among a wide range of families and its offer of an individualized learning experience has made it a key model for racially and economically integrated schools,” writes Debs, who helped start a public Montessori school in New Haven, Connecticut.

But, she warns, Montessori is “particularly vulnerable, both historically and today, to being diverted to serve predominantly middle-class and white students.”

Montessori, a philosophy developed by Italian educator Maria Montessori in the early 1900s, is often seen as the province of private school, and there are more than 2,000 private Montessori programs in the U.S. today. But it also exists within traditional school districts: Estimates suggest there are more than 500 public Montessori programs, about 40 percent of those are charter schools. Students in public Montessori are substantially more likely to be white and come from higher-income families than students in their school districts overall, according to Debs’ research.

There’s surprisingly little research on Montessori’s effects on student outcomes, though recent studies on schools in South Carolina and Hartford have found encouraging results. Still, Debs said, “There’s a lot more research that needs to happen.”

Chalkbeat spoke with Debs about how Montessori fits into the school choice ecosystem, why some parents are wary of the approach, and whether she’s optimistic about Jeff Bezos’ ambition.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Chalkbeat: If I walked into a Montessori classroom or Montessori school, what are some of the trappings and ways the school is run that might feel distinct?

Mira Debs: One of the things that you’ll notice if you go into a Montessori classroom is that there will be a full class of children who are all working on different things. You’ll see them working on the floor, on mats, you’ll see them working on tables, you’ll see them working in pairs or small groups, you’ll see them working by themselves, and it will take you a couple of minutes to look and find the teacher because the teacher won’t immediately be apparent.

As I write about in the book, there’s a really structured process by which students gradually work up to have that level of independence and control. People who are observing don’t often see what all of those processes are like.

In one classroom where I was observing, they have a student who monitors the noise, and when the noise gets to a particular level, the student’s job is to go to the front of the room and turn off the lights which then acts as a signal to the students that they need to bring their noise level back down. That all happened in the span of a minute, completely independent of the teacher having to say or do anything.  

As you know, Jeff Bezos has committed $1 billion toward opening a number of Montessori preschools. Can you describe your understanding of what it is that he wants to do?

It’s called the Bezos Day One Academies. The idea is that they would create, open, and operate a series of free-tuition Montessori-inspired preschool programs in an unspecified number of cities. The Montessori community was very excited by that announcement, and people have immediately been trying to figure out, what exactly does does that mean? And what does he mean by “Montessori-inspired’ as well?

Because one of the things that has traditionally happened with people who start student-centered schools or progressive schools like Montessori is that when they take inspiration, but it’s only partial, there’s a really strong tendency to be pulled back into traditional ideas of schooling. Something can be Montessori-inspired but actually then not really be very strongly Montessori or very strongly anything else. That’s one big question that  Montessori educators are trying to understand. My understanding from conversations with folks at the Bezos Day One Academies is they’re also working to figure out what exactly does that look like. I think that hasn’t been been answered yet.

Have they sought out your advice or guidance at all?

The head of the Bezos Day One Academies, Mike George, was at the most recent Montessori Event — the American Montessori Society conference that happened in March. So I was able meet him at that point.

To your knowledge have they spelled out any further details about what they want to do publicly?

No.

Can you talk about your own thoughts then — why you might be optimistic, pessimistic, or somewhere in between about this grant?

I think that it’s been great for raising the profile of Montessori. The historic amount of money that’s being donated and the potential for who it might give access to Montessori is really significant and really encouraging. It’s also garnered a lot of public attention and made other funders take note. It’s kind of like the Bill Gates effect — when one the richest people in the world decides to put on a lot of money towards something, then a lot of other people are taking note.

I absolutely support the idea of providing quality early child care to communities that historically have not been able to access it. As an education researcher, I really see the way that schools are very integral parts of the communities in which they’re created. They serve as community hubs. They serve as places of empowerment. They serve as places of exchange. So I’ve been really inspired by the grassroots Montessori educators who have built schools out of their communities, and in response to the needs of their communities. From my research I’ve seen how much these organizations are really working very hard to solicit funding.

As I wrote in a New York Times editorial in the fall, I would love to see Bezos’ money go to support organizations that are already doing the work rather than creating an entirely new initiative. But maybe it’s also possible to do a both/and — to create something new and also support the people who are already out there doing the work in their communities.

In your book you write, “The public Montessori story is a microcosm of the great challenges of school choice — balancing opportunity, diversity, and equity.” Can you tell me a little more about what you mean by that?

There are all kinds of ways that choice is appealing to families because it gives them the sense of control over their children’s education. It gives them the sense that they are choosing something that matches the individuality and the specialness of their child. But what we’ve seen overwhelmingly in research and reporting from city to city is that the cumulative effects of those individual choices can have really unintended consequences and can lead to greater racial segregation.

How do you see public Montessori schools fitting into that?

The promise of Montessori in the public sector has been a space for a really innovative model, a space that has spoken to families of a lot of different backgrounds and demographics, and a way to try something really different in the public sector. But the challenge has been that the very desirability of that model has then led to all of the effects that I was just speaking about. Because Montessori has a certain cachet, because it exists a lot in the private sector, families with resources have heard of it and flock after it.

Then that opportunity is not as available to the less-resourced families who may not know about Montessori and may not necessarily think about that as an option for their children. In Montessori, you see a dramatic version of a lot of these phenomena that are happening more broadly in the school choice landscape.

Montessori educators tend to think of themselves as creating a school and that school itself is is creating a positive good in the community. I think it’s really important for schools to also be thinking about what’s their impact on the ecosystem. I think of a school like City Garden Montessori School in St. Louis, which has really been leading the way in reflecting on what is what is their broader impact on their community. They located themselves in one of the few racially diverse neighborhoods in St. Louis because they wanted to create a racially diverse school. But because their school was a Montessori school, they actually started advancing the gentrification that was already underway in that neighborhood. And as a result the school has gotten involved in leading efforts to have conversations about affordable housing in their neighborhood so that they can ensure that they’re there working to sustain the diversity of the neighborhood. They’re also currently working on expanding to other parts of St. Louis that have less resources.

In your book, you point out that over two-thirds of public Montessori schools enroll fewer students of color than their surrounding school district. And nearly three-quarters of public Montessori schools enroll fewer low-income students than the surrounding district. Those are very striking disparities.

Yes. Although, on the other hand, if the district is a majority-poor district and a district that has a majority of students of color, Montessori can also be serving to create schools that are more racially balanced.

If a school, say, is 50 percent students of color and 50 percent white in a district that is 90 percent of students of color, is that school working to further integration or further segregation? It seems ambiguous.

Yeah, I would say I don’t know. But the other challenge to that I saw is that it’s really hard for schools to maintain a stable level of racial diversity.

Do you think it is possible or even common that the idea of Montessori is used by some white parents as a socially acceptable way to send their kids to white and affluent segregated schools?  

Absolutely. In the same way that I think parents are often using the phrase, “Oh, this is a better fit for us” as stand-in for all kinds of other things that they don’t necessarily want to say. But on the other hand, we’ve also seen both historically and today that Montessori brings white families into schools serving predominantly students of color that they wouldn’t have otherwise considered because they want Montessori so much for their children. I think it does both things.

Can you describe how you define the idea of “school fit” in your book and why you find that problematic in certain ways?

A good fit is often talked about very naturalistically. You’ll look through a brochure from the city of New York or Boston and it just tells parents, “Pick a school that’s a good fit for your child.” There’s no discussion of what does that actually mean, and who is able to take advantage of this idea of fit and who is not able to take advantage of the idea the good fit. Part of the book, beyond talking about Montessori, is complicating and showing how this idea of a good fit is really socially constructed.

Part of it has to do with a set of choices that a family has available to them. Part of it has to do with the process that happens after they enroll in the school and what their interactions are like with the educators at the school and how the educators either make them feel comfortable or don’t make them feel comfortable. Part of the idea of a good fit is is the experience of the parent community or the student community and whether they feel integrated into that or not.

It does seem in some ways that Montessori is premised on the idea of school choice. I mean that in the sense that you speak to some Montessori educators who suggest that the model really requires parental and student buy-in to the idea of Montessori to work.

I observed Montessori educators being of two minds about this. On the one hand, people would say this is a universal model that’s about child development that works for all children. And if the model is not working for a child, the model needs to adapt to whatever the needs of the child are. On the other hand, I would also hear Montessori educators saying, this child is such a Montessori child, or, this child really needs to be in a different environment. Part of that is a tension between this view of the universality of Montessori and the real focus on maintaining the integrity of the model, which sometimes means saying these students are not fitting in the structure that we’ve created.

To what extent were comments like that from educators correlated with the race and socioeconomic status of children they were referring to — more pointedly, were Montessori educators more likely to say that low-income, black and Hispanic children were not good fits for their model?

I don’t know that I mapped the comments specifically. They were said to me in a lot of different contexts, so I don’t know that I have enough data to make a correlation. Educators also told me that would often happen with kids who were disruptive and kids who were from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.

You talked about how in some — not all, but in some cases — among the parents and families you talked to, there was more buy-in from some of the white parents into the model and some more skepticism from the black and Hispanic parents. There was one parent, for instance, who you were speaking about a gardening initiative as part of the Montessori program and he said, “I know it’s important, but can she read? Can she add? Can she do computer stuff?” Walk me through your findings on this.

One of the groups of people who I observed in my project were people who told me that they were the Montessori believers — they would say, “I drank the Kool-Aid.” Overall, of the people that I interviewed, a larger number of white parents fall into that category, and the black and Latinx parents that I interviewed were more split between that group and parents who are more ambivalent about Montessori and then parents who are kind of satisfied but didn’t have strong opinions about it.

Part of that was not about inherent incompatibility but it had to do with their set of choices and the context of the system of magnet schools in Hartford. A lot of the white families who came into the school were making a really intentional choice for Montessori. If white families were not happy with the school they were easily able to leave and go back to their suburban districts, which had very high-performing schools. The people who were there and were staying were the super adherents.

There was a group of middle-class and upper-middle-class black and Latinx parents who were at the schools who were more ambivalent. Part of that had to do with Montessori, but part of that also had to do with what their alternative set of choices was. If they were from inner-ring suburbs, they were not necessarily really thrilled with the quality of their alternative school choices, and if they were in the city of Hartford, they would have to go through the magnet lottery process again and there was a lot of uncertainty surrounding that. That led a lot of the families to be more inclined to just stick with the school.

Some of the specific concerns that they brought up for me that I had not been anticipating had to do with the way the school communicated about academics versus this personalized, whole-child learning. A lot of the educators assumed that the academic benefits of Montessori were apparent, and so they didn’t actually need to communicate about that to families, whereas what they really needed to communicate about were the additional benefits — that their kids were going to be gardening, that they were going to be outside, that they were going to be learning social and emotional skills. To families who were seeking reassurance that their kids were going to be academically successful first and foremost, a number of them still had questions about that, even after enrolling their children in the school and being there for a number of years.