Class and the American Montessori Movement

by Sara Winnick

Illustration by Soyoon Kim

published January 30, 2015

Providence, 2014

The foyer features a grand staircase and crown moldings. The mansion-turned pre-school’s hallway is lined with offices that used to be living rooms. Hooks have been attached to the wall approximately the height of my hip for Angel Care Montessori students to hang their coats. The three-year-old students know how to open and close the gate to retrieve their lunch boxes from the hallway, which they are allowed to do at any point during their morning work period. “The students retrieve their own lunch boxes,” founder of Angel Care and head-teacher Catherine Valenti tells me. “That’s the independence.  At most preschools the teacher would lay out everything and the teacher would say when it’s time. But our students choose when they have snack, because they have the tools to be disciplined and make that decision.” Welcome to Montessori education.

     Montessori educational philosophy views children as inherently curious. Montessori educators believe students learn and work better if left to their own devices, given adequate materials and appropriate adult oversight. In Montessori schools, teachers serve as guides, not instructors. Valenti, or “Miss Catherine” as she refers to herself in front of the students, founded Angel Care Montessori in 1995. She and her team have been implementing the century-old pedagogical philosophy of Dr. Maria Montessori in the quiet mansion on Waterman Street for nearly two decades.

     I haven’t been in pre-school for seventeen years, but the layout of Angel Care Montessori feels both profoundly familiar and unique. I recognize the standard early childhood education equipment: small furniture suited to three-year-old bottoms, a miniature plastic version of a kitchen for playing house, a large rug for stories and songs. Academically, there is an oversized calendar on an easel with words like “day” and “week” on flashcards and tiny pictures of the weather with Velcro backs.

     Beyond the materials, the ambiance of the room is different from any pre-school I’ve experienced. There are only eight students in the class, dispersed widely throughout the large playroom. Classical music, emanating from a stereo mounted on the far wall, makes whole-group direction difficult, but then again, no one is delivering whole-group directions. When needed, teachers lower themselves to three-year-old eye level and speak to students face-to-face. Otherwise, students work independently on oversized jigsaw puzzles and undersized kitchen equipment. The largeness of the room is exaggerated by the smallness of the students; their quiet work absorbed by the Beethoven background.


Rome, 1906

A continent away, another Montessori classroom quietly thrives. Dr. Maria Montessori, inventor and namesake of the Montessori Method, was recruited for her work as a child psychologist at the University of Rome to run a school for poor children in tenement housing outside of Rome in 1907. Montessori called the school Casa dei Bambini, or Children’s House. Dr. Montessori described an average classroom in Casa in The Montessori Method: “There are forty little beings—from three to seven years old, each one intent on his own work. One is going through the exercises for the senses; one is handling the letters… still another is dusting. Some are seated at tables, some on rugs on the floor. There are muffled sounds of objects lightly moving about, of children tiptoeing…. The teacher moves quietly about, goes to any child who calls her, supervision operates in such a way that anyone who needs her finds her at his elbow, and whoever does not need her is not reminded of her existence.”

     The passage could easily be mistaken for a quotation from Angel Care Montessori’s website. Dr. Montessori’s student completing “the exercises for the senses” could be Valenti’s student working quietly on the puzzle, the child dusting in early twentieth century Italy is the child I saw baking pretend muffins in Providence. The classrooms both have miniature tables, sandpaper letters, wooden tools, and students sprawled on the floor on rugs. Neither set of teachers command the space. The biggest difference between a Montessori classroom in Rome at its conception and a Montessori classroom in Providence today, thus, is not the supplies, activities, or the ethos of the classroom. It is in the demographic of the students the materials are set up to serve.

     The building in Rome housed forty children between the ages of two and seven years; on the morning of my visit, the mansion on Angel Street has eight between two and five.  The 40 children in Dr. Montessori’s Casa were children living in poverty in the slums outside of Rome. Angel Care Montessori is located in the most affluent neighborhood in Providence. When I ask Ms. Valenti how much it costs to attend Montessori schools, she tells me, “It varies. Certainly for us, we’re here on the east side and we’re competitive with the other private schools such as Moses Brown, Wheeler, Gordon.”  Valenti does not give a specific number and I cannot find a price on their website. However, I look up these other private schools Angel Care is “competitive” with. For pre-school, Moses Brown costs $14,660 a year. Wheeler charges $15,315. Gordon is $15,800.


Montessori schools have gone through two major periods of proliferation in the United States, comprising the first and second wave of the Montessori Movement. First: the Progressive Era, when Dr. Montessori toured the United States explaining her philosophy and advocating its implementation. Second: the Civil Rights Era, when another educator and advocate, Nancy McCormick Rambusch, helped re-publicize the values and practices of Montessori schooling. Ironically, though both periods’ social justice zeitgeists enabled the Montessori philosophy to take hold, the class and racial identities of its advocates ensured its narrow implementation among the elite.

     Maria Montessori’s name first appeared in American media in 1911, when McClure’s Magazine published a fifteen page spread on Casa entitled, “The Montessori Schools in Rome: The Revolutionary Educational Work of Maria Montessori as Carried Out in her Own Schools.” Less than a year later, McClure’s followed up on the article with “Information about the Montessori Method”; the magazine had allegedly received so many letters from readers about Montessori that it had become “impossible to reply to all these inquiries directly.” Americans, it seemed, were enchanted by the new education movement.

     But which Americans fell in love with Montessori? At the time of the publication of “The Montessori Schools in Rome,” McClure’s Magazine had over 400,000 issues in circulation to primarily urban, upper class, white readers. Un-coincidentally its readers were those most likely to be advocates of the Progressive Movement.

     The Progressive Movement of 1890 to 1920 directly rebelled against the corruption and big business trends of the Gilded Age that came before it. Cities were the subjects and sites of progressive reformers major campaigns: prohibition, anti-trust laws, services for immigrants.  Largely white, educated, and upper class, reformers leveraged their leisure time, capital, and educations to advocate for societal reform. Progressive reformers believed that the environment, rather than the individual, was responsible for inequality. Progressive reformers reasoned that if poverty was a product of circumstance, circumstance could ameliorate poverty. Education took on new societal importance.

     The Montessori Movement took hold because a school for poor children resonated with Progressive values. Media portrayal, so integral to the success of any reform effort in the muckraking decades of the twentieth century, consistently highlighted the anti-poverty origins of the school.

     Yet Montessori schools were rarely implemented for the same population in the United States. Chair-people of the Montessori Education Association, like Alexander Graham Bell and Margaret Woodrow Wilson, found the easiest implementation of the program to be in the homes of Progressives who were on board with the pedagogy. Whether they had plans to extend later to other demographics or considered the adoption of the pedagogy themselves Progressive enough is unclear. The only Montessori school in Washington, DC was housed in Mr. Bell’s estate.


The second wave of the Montessori Movement began in the 1960s, after the movement’s relative disappearance post-Progressive Era. In a moment of democratic expansion, the social justice origins of Montessori again resonated. As in the Progressive Era, the Civil Rights Era was a moment when environmental—rather than personal or cultural—causes of poverty were emphasized. Brown v. Board of Education demonstrated that it was resources, rather than children (or children’s racial identities), that accounted for educational and societal disparities between blacks and whites.

     Key to the resurgence of the Movement was the leadership of Nancy McCormick Rambusch, a Montessori educator who traveled to Rome to receive training from Dr. Montessori’s son, and returned home to found The American Montessori Society. Rambusch was white, Catholic, middle class; she motivated other white parents to revive the Montessori Movement. Rambusch emphasized the religious underpinnings of the first wave of the movement, which was written about in Jubilee, a Christian magazine that published “Learning Made Easy” in September of 1953. Just as McClure’s pandered to a Progressive audience, Jubilee catered to a white, Catholic one.

     Once again, the identities of the movement’s leadership enabled its narrow implementation, while its greater historical context allowed for Montessori schools’ reception and success. News coverage of the second wave of Montessori emphasized its anti-poverty origins. The New York Times reported, “In the first decade of this century an Italian woman physician tried out her ideas about education on 60 children in the slums of Rome. These undisciplined and untrained children learned to read and write.” The Boston Globe spoke of Hingham Montessori School in Cambridge, Massachusetts that took active measures to include children of all demographics. However, the school was bankrupt. The Globe reported, “Hingham has funding problems—Cambridge’s Montessori school is operating at a $25,000 deficit, yet it maintains 22 scholarships.” The Hingham school does not exist today.

     In 1958, Rambusch helped open Whitby, the first Montessori school of the second wave, in conjunction with parents in Greenwich, an affluent Connecticut suburb. Eight hundred private Montessori schools opened in the next decade, the majority of which still exist today. To send your three-year-old to Whitby costs $21, 550 per year.


 In 2014, Ms. Valenti tells me that Montessori pedagogy has the potential to “cross social economic borders,” despite the fact that “it’s gotten a lot of notice for those who can afford really good private education.” According to Valenti, the population differences stem from the locations of the school. “It really just caters to the community that the school is in, whether its rich, poor, or educated” she says. Providence has three Montessori schools; all located on the east side—the most affluent and whitest neighborhood of the city.

     Today, there is a growing association between Montessori schools and the San Francisco Bay Area tech-bubble.  Business Insider recently published “7 Tech Innovators Who Became Wildly Successful After Going To Montessori School,” which makes the argument that top tech executives received their inventive spirit from the self-directed, project based schooling of Montessori. Google CEO Larry Page told the Christian Science Monitor, “I think it was part of that training of not following rules and orders, and being self motivated, questioning what’s going on in the world and doing things a little bit differently” when asked about his Montessori education.

     While tech giants praise their Montessori upbringings, Page and others in the field are helping pioneer technology that enable “flipped” classrooms, where students learn from computer programs instead of teachers.  Used disproportionately in low-come classrooms with students of color, students in flipped classrooms sit in front of individual computer monitors and work their way through scripted multiple-choice curriculum made to look like computer games.  Education scholar Melinda Fine critiqued flipped classrooms for denying high quality, individualized instruction to low-income students and undermining the importance of trained and adequately compensated teachers in a recent conversation with The Indy. According to Dr. Fine, flipped classrooms are the epitome of factory-model education—and the antithesis of the technology free Montessori classroom on Waterman Street and throughout the Bay area.

     Montessori schools in 2014 continue to be places for the white liberal elite to educate their children. A look into past periods of Montessori expansion shows that this has always been the case, ironically in part because of the social justice origins of the philosophy that allowed the movement to take hold.  Montessori, in its first two periods of popularity, resonated with a specific white, intellectual, urban, liberal, upper-middle class person interested in advancing social equality. This population, due to their political views and the political contexts of the time, thought they were combating social inequality by participating in the movement. They were more accurately contributing to it.

     A recent study by the National Center for Education Statistics found there were 732 Montessori schools in the United States. 16 percent of students served by Montessori schools came from minority backgrounds. 100 percent paid tuition.

Sara Winnick B’15 is absorbed by the Beethoven background.