Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A History of Montessori Education and Obama’s Educational Reform

obama's educational reform NAMC montessori education history girl and teacher
This week marks a historic first in the United States. It is estimated that 2 million people will have been in attendance to celebrate the inauguration of Barack Obama, the nation’s first African American president. Around the world, television broadcasts will have been seen by countless others. It is a time of change and hope for the American people and the world. At a time of political and socio-economic challenges, the world waits to see what the future holds.

It promises to be a time of reform and brave changes. As Montessorians, I know that we are concerned with what Obama’s educational reform will look like. During his campaign, Obama spoke of reform with his “Zero to Five Plan”.

Unlike other early childhood education plans, the Obama-Biden plan places key emphasis at early care and education for infants, which is essential for children to be ready to enter kindergarten…Obama and Biden will quadruple Early Head Start, increase Head Start funding and improve quality for both…Obama and Biden will also provide affordable and high-quality child care to ease the burden on working families.
- Barack Obama and Joe Biden: The Change We Need Education. 2008.

This is good news for early childhood educators. Spending for early childhood education was cut during the Bush administration.

A History of Montessori Education and Obama’s Educational Reform

Obama speaks to the heart of Montessorians. While spending time as a "community organizer" in Chicago, Obama saw up close the challenges that poor families face, and how important early childhood education is, especially for children living in poverty. When I read this, a thought struck me: Isn’t this exactly what Maria Montessori experienced while working with the children of San Lorenzo in the early 1900’s?

The conditions of the slums of San Lorenzo, according to Dr. Montessori were abhorrent. Apparently, there had been a building fund to build very large apartment-style buildings, but the money ran out before they could be finished. Due to lack of funding, these buildings were abandoned and neglected.

There were only the walls with open holes for doors and windows, there was no plumbing and the erections stood as a sort of skeleton. . . For many years this enormous skeleton remained abandoned and neglected. It became a shelter for homeless beggars, a hiding place for evildoers who wished to avoid recognition and who if discovered, could easily escape in this labyrinth. Criminals of all sorts, thieves and murderers, took refuge in them. People lived there in the same conditions as the cavemen of old did in their caves. . . Even the police did not go near them, or dared to, as they did not know their way within these grim walls of crime and horror.
- Maria Montessori. “How it All Happened”. 1942.

Later, another building fund was raised. Knowing the San Lorenzo neighborhood would never be a “fashionable” neighborhood, only small renovations were made to make the building habitable. “…they started with one building which they discovered would house a thousand people. They used some whitewash, put in some doors and windows, and laid in a few water pipes and drains.” (Montessori. 1942.)

It was decided that those inhabitants who were married would occupy the refurbished building. Although there were roughly 10,000 people living in San Lorenzo, there were only about 50 children. “But these children, wild and uncivilized as they were, presented a serious problem of damage to the houses. Left alone while the parents went to work, they were free to carry out any wild fancy. So the director of the concern decided that the only obvious thing to keep them out of mischief was to collect all the children and confine them.
- Maria Montessori. “How it All Happened”. 1942.

What Montessori found in San Lorenzo was soon to become the basis of her life’s work. “One room was set aside for this purpose, resembling in every way a children's prison. It was hoped that a person would be found with enough social courage to tackle the problem.” She soon demanded that the “forgotten” children of San Lorenzo be given at the least, means of proper hygiene, food, and sanitation.

But while everyone had had the idea that by giving houses and sanitation, the people would be purified, no one had taken in consideration the children; no one had thought to bring toys or food for them. When the children, ranging between the ages of 2 to 6 entered, they were dressed all alike in some thick, heavy, blue drill. They were frightened and being hindered by the stiff material, could move neither arms nor legs freely. Apart of their own community they had never seen any people. To get them to move together, they were made to hold hands. The first unwilling child was pulled, thus dragging along the whole line of the rest. All of them were crying miserably. The sympathy of the society ladies was aroused and they expressed the hope that in a few months they would improve.
- Maria Montessori. “How it All Happened”. 1942.

What happened next is the story that Montessori teachers know by heart. By observing the children of the poor, illiterate, uneducated people of the slums of San Lorenzo, Montessori found that when given a purpose and let alone to discover and explore...

… little by little the children began to work with concentration and the transformation they underwent, was noticeable. From timid and wild as they were before, the children became sociable and communicative. They showed a different relationship with each other, of which I have written in my books. Their personalities grew and, strange though it may seem, they showed extraordinary understanding, activity, vivacity and confidence. They were happy and joyous.
- Maria Montessori. “How it All Happened”. 1942.


obama's educational reform NAMC montessori education history holding hands
Later, Montessori went on to state that her ‘method’ begins at birth. That parents and caretakers need to bond with the child, focusing on the needs of the child, rather focusing on needs of the parent. Again, as a Montessorian, I am hopeful that Obama’s “Zero to Five” program will help us focus on this critical time of childhood. Most early childhood and headstart programs are geared for children between the ages of 3-4. Obama recognizes the importance of the first three years of life and is taking measures to safeguard that. Infants and toddlers are not merely empty vessels that we put aside until they are of the age to learn “real” things. They are learning from their environment and care takers all the time! It is crucial, as Montessori stated.

Obama also recognizes the importance of parent education with respect to raising children. He is promising to fund a nurse-home visitation program that will reach 570,000 new, at-risk mothers annually. This model will provide care and visits both during pregnancy as well as for the first 18 months of their children's lives to provide support, health services, and education. Programs such as these have been shown to be effective in improving not only the outcomes of children but also of mothers.
The model for these home visitations is based on trials that were conducted over the last three decades, targeting first-time, low-income mothers.

Consistent Program Effects
  • Improved prenatal health
  • Fewer childhood injuries
  • Fewer subsequent pregnancies
  • Increased intervals between births
  • Increased maternal employment
  • Improved school readiness for children born to mothers with low psychological resources
Positive Program Effects Found in First Trial at Child Age 15: Benefits to Mothers
  • 61% fewer arrests
  • 72% fewer convictions
  • 98% fewer days in jail
Benefits to Children at Child Age 15
  • 48% reduction in child abuse and neglect
  • 59% reduction in arrests
  • 90% reduction in adjudications as PINS (person in need of supervision) for incorrigible behavior
See Nurse-Family Partnership for more information. Upon speaking to a number of people interested in pursuing Montessori teacher training, there is some concern that the current economic downturn may affect Montessori school enrollment, thus the demand for teachers may diminish. On the contrary, considering Obama’s forward-thinking approach to invest in early childhood education, now seems like the perfect time to complete your Montessori teacher training. Additionally, the Obama plan seeks to double the funding for the Federal Charter School Program in order to create more effective and successful charter schools. There are many successful public charter Montessori programs in the United States. Obama promises to help states that help charter schools expand, thus attracting more students.

If you are interested in pursuing your Montessori training, please visit www.montessoritraining.net, or call 1.877.531.6665 (Outside USA/Canada: 604.531.6665), to speak with a NAMC representative for more information about a career in Montessori education.
As much as possible, NAMC’s web blog reflects the Montessori curriculum as provided in its teacher training programs. We realize and respect that Montessori schools are unique and may vary their schedules and offerings in accordance with the needs of their individual communities. We hope that our readers will find our articles useful and inspiring as a contribution to the global Montessori community.
© North American Montessori Center - originally posted in its entirety at Montessori Teacher Training on Tuesday, January 20, 2009.

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