Common core? Montessori common sense!

As the majority of states move toward a common curricular road map beginning in 2014, Montessorians have been remarkably silent. But it happened before.

Montessori educators never spoke in a clear voice about the ill-advised elements of No Child Left Behind.

Now comes the successor reform platform, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Despite widespread approval of the program at the state level, the debate is just now ramping up. Where are Montessorians?

Forty-five states and territories have adopted the CCSS totally. Two consortia have been created to develop assessments.  Textbook publishers and testing companies are preparing for lucrative contracts.

Meanwhile, critics from across the spectrum have been looking at several issues, ranging from external control of curriculum or the balance between informational writing to real literature to the partnership between  the Gates Foundation and textbook powerhouse Pearson to create on-line classes.

Montessori educators have traditionally been unimpressed by efforts to apply external standards, at least some have taken to the CCSS opportunity.

Anna Perry of Seton Montessori in Chicago has been one. She sees the standards as a way to show the rest of the world that Montessori works.

“While Montessorians generally do not advocate for standardized testing, standardized childhood, and universal standards in general, we have to recognize that this is how the rest of the world is examining efficacy of educational formats and should take the opportunity to promote ourselves before we are forced to defend ourselves for lack of evidence.

“The Common Core State Standards offer Montessori an excellent opportunity,” she said. “To provide for the world documentation of what Montessori is in terms that the rest of the world understands—educational standards.

“The beauty of the Common Core is that:

• “It is one set of standards that 45 of the 50 states have agreed to adopt

• “They are cumulative standards in which each grade level builds on the grades before it, which suits our mixed age groupings defense

• “These standards are, for the most part, things that are either met or exceeded in the typical Montessori classroom, and we should be able to get to universal language about how we meet them.

“When I first saw these standards I realized that they could become, in many ways, the answer to our advocacy prayers.  However, it has been challenging to achieve consensus within the Montessori community about how we define which Montessori materials and techniques address each standard (particularly challenging in aligning the Language standards at the Elementary levels) and how we translate Montessori activities to the larger population in terms that it can understand and value.

Linda Wessel, chair of the South Carolina Montessori Alliance and instructional coach in the Laurens 55 school district, described the standards as “Montessori friendly.”

She noted that implementation in her district begins early—with kindergarten and lower elementary classrooms.

The process is easy, she noted, “as long as teachers understand what the standards mean.”

But she noted the difficulty of implementing the standards.

“Teachers don’t feel like they have changed what they teach,” she said. “Understanding is the challenge. It has always been a challenge in Public Montessori schools to marry with state curriculum.

Teachers are a mixed bag,” she said. “Some embrace it… Others are resistant. It is more of a challenge for the lower el than the primary teachers. Some will say they have to give up part of curriculum to do common core. That is the reality of it. We are in a very young process of how they work together.”

“We have done several professional development trainings for common core and Montessori. We have invited people from other districts to join us.

“Single vision?  Yes.  The vision for public Montessori is to implement it as authentically as we can. This will help us be more united, have more of a voice.

“I don’t see Montessori changes in philosophy or method or the importance of observing children. What I see changing is teachers’ planning for students.”

Overall, she sees the process as a success. “The feeling is positive,” she said.

Another area of criticism of the CCSS is the potential for commercialization.

According to one blog poster, “’Common Core’ is the key that makes the scheme to commercialize public education possible. Without a common curriculum, there is insufficient scale, and too much competition, for the big guys to want to play. There is huge money available if teacher salaries and benefits are reduced, but the profiteers need a strong federal system of accountability to get access to it.

“Eliminate common core and national accountability, and the profiteers are cut off at the knees.”

The profiteers are the large testing and textbook companies, creating materials for the standards.  There is no one large enough in the Montessori world to fit that description, but some companies see the opportunity to create a more efficient system.

Dave Rabkin, founder and president of Montessori Records Express, has spent the last several years working to create record-keeping system for Montessori schools. He has embraced the CCSS and added it to his program, with special outreach to charter schools.

“No industry grown large without technology to support what they have. They have trouble gaining traction.  If you go to a classroom, you know right away why it hasn’t it spread.

“CCSS”, he said,  “is just the tip of the iceberg. We are applying technology.” The program is now available in desktop and mobile versions for Android and IOS.

“We have acquired a set of lessons that the AMS research committee thinks are standard lessons for early childhood, lower el and upper el. We took advantage of this moment. Any school has the ability to design a report that is mainly a tool to translate the progress Montessorians are making in their terms into things the rest of us can understand.”

With his MR program, he can translate student progress into parent-friendly terms that the school can report as state standards.  With good recordkeeping, it can take just a few seconds to generate a report.

Partnering with Lisa Adarve of Montessori Made Manageable to plan in terms of state standards and Eric Johnson who has produced several videos, Rabkin says his system is complete.

“Every one of Eric’s videos is in MRX, linking to lessons when a teacher is about to present. The teacher can click a button and get the lesson.

“MRX does not replace training. We assume schools are gatekeepers for teacher qualifications.  Any help they can get they really appreciate

“In that way, he said, “MRX is a just-in-time  refresher course.”

“It is not to replace anybody. We are just trying to support what they are doing.”

Preparing teachers can be a challenge. “Younger people grew up on technology. To apply all this technology when teachers are uninformed around technology takes some work. Many Montessorians are not comfortable around technology

“Maybe MRX will be the killer app and help Montessorians to take the plunge into technology.”

So, in the mind of several innovators, the fit between Common Core and Montessori is snug. The idea of showing others what Montessori schools accomplish, the technology of training teachers and record-keeping all have their advocates.

But there is surely a negative side to this, as well.

Montessori educators have long struggled with public school officials who have wanted to add preparation for one more test skill to their classroom. They have long argued that education is about lighting the fire, not filling the bucket.

Maybe it is time for thoughtful Montessori educators who held their tongues as No Child Left Behind rolled out to speak up.

Is the potential danger to your classroom or school real? Is the essence of Montessori education endangered?

Let us know. We will print your response. Send your thoughts to Montessori@jolapub.com with common core in the subject line.