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Growth of Public Montessori in the United States: 1975-2014

Posted on January 15, 2019 at 12:10 AM

Four decades of growth

The last fifteen years have witnessed a surge of interest in Montessori education. This interest is evident in a rise in research on Montessori, increased mainstream press, and the opening of new Montessori schools. This growth in Montessori programs is evident not just in the private but also in the public sector, where we estimate that over 300 new public Montessori programs have opened since 2000.

Using a sample of all public schools reported in the 1986-2012 National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) database, the 1993 NAMTA Montessori Public Schools Consortium Directory, crosschecked with the USA Montessori Census, we have identified 635 public Montessori school programs that have opened since 1975, including 482 public Montessori schools currently operating.


As the figure above illustrates, during the same period, 153 public Montessori programs were moved to other school sites or were closed entirely. Our data shows that 42% were programs consolidated to other schools in the same city, 35% were district schools, 16% were charter schools and 6% were federally and state funded early childhood centers. Although further research is needed to better understand the reasons behind these closures, some of these closures coincided with the ending of court ordered desegregation programs. In other cases, programs were ended due to a shortage of teachers or a lack of support by principals and Superintendents. This points to the continued need for a pipeline of publicly certified Montessori trained teachers, and continued engagement of principals, superintendents and state and national stakeholders.

The growth of Montessori education in the public sector mirrors the trajectory of the movement as a whole. We identify four distinct waves of interest in Montessori education, each corresponding to equally distinct political and social climates effecting the development of educational culture.

Phase 1 began in the second decade of the 20th century, with programs that were either fully public or designed specifically to serve high need populations. In 1913, Katherine Moore, opened a public Montessori school in Los Angeles; and in 1915, a free Montessori program in one of New York’s new model open-air tenements was developed through the backing of New York socialite and reformer Alva Vanderbilt.

By the 1960’s, a second wave of interest in Montessori began first in affluent communities. Catalyzed by a new generation of middle-class college-educated mothers seeking “the best” for the children, a rapid expansion of independent Montessori schools quickly extended into the era’s War on Poverty. Montessori was recognized as an effective model for application in Head Start, Get Start and other poverty-ameliorating programs.

Beginning in 1975, the scope of Montessori in the public sector expanded as the War on Poverty shifted its focus to desegregation. Cities seeking voluntary methods of desegregating schools developed Montessori magnet schools, first in Cincinnati, and then in other urban systems, most notably Milwaukee and Kansas City.

As the rapid expansion of public Montessori indicates, we are currently experiencing a fourth wave of intense interest in and corresponding growth of Montessori as an educational approach. Beginning with the introduction of charter schools in the early 1990’s, along with the expansion of choice options in many urban districts, a growing community of parents and educators seeking alternatives to conventional public schooling continues to fuel exponential growth in the public Montessori sector.


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