Six-year-old children at Mission Montessori Academy use pea soup to learn about evolution, create timelines for prehistoric periods and give presentations about Eastern Europe.
But they don’t spend time learning about Christopher Columbus, the first Thanksgiving or North American history.
That’s because the Scottsdale charter school, like other Montessori schools, uses a teaching system that starts with big concepts — like the universe — and moves to details — like local government — as the children grow.
Yet by 2007, all public schools must ensure they are teaching social studies standards dictated by the Arizona Department of Education, which details exactly what children must learn each year.
This will include the 40 Montessori schools that are charters or run by school districts.
“(The standards) are the opposite of our curriculum,” said Betty Matthews, Mission’s director. “We cover all of the standards, but in different timing.”
In the Mesa Unified School District, which operates three Montessori programs, a committee of administrators and teachers will figure out how to adapt to the new standards, said Bev Potter, director of Sunridge Learning Center, a Montessori school with 180 students and a waiting list.
“There’s a pretty big gap, especially at the primary grades, of differences in what’s being taught,” she said.
By the end of school, Montessori instructors have no doubt their students will know the standards. It is the timing of the lessons that perplexes some of them.
“We’ll be forced to give information to children out of context, with nothing attached to it,” Matthews said. “We have written our charter based on who we are, and what sets us apart is our method. They want to force us into the (traditional) public school model.”
The state standards require young children to learn large concepts, like exploration, along with historical details. For example, they ask kindergartners to understand what the bald eagle and American flag symbolize and to construct maps of familiar places.
First-graders learn some aspects of other countries, such as farming in ancient Egypt.
But Montessori instructors say this varies dramatically from the foundation for Montessori elementary education, known as “cosmic education” — a holistic approach that stresses the economic, spiritual and cultural interdependence of all people.
Montessori developed this curriculum to help children learn who they are and their places in the world. Teachers present knowledge as a great “epic” that involves the origins of the earth, life, human communities, empires and modern history.
Margo O’Neill, director of Villa Montessori, an east Phoenix charter school, says this “big picture” approach gives children a deeper and broader sense of society, which in turn makes it easier for them to learn details about things such as local government when they are older.
Charter schools — public schools that are privately operated — were created so parents could choose the best educational style for their children. But some charter proponents believe the state is stifling those differences, forcing the charters to conform to traditional public school styles.
Vicki Murray, former director of the Goldwater Institute’s Center for Educational Opportunity, bemoaned what she called an “essentially year-byyear, day-by-day, planned curriculum,” saying it is leading some charter schools to convert to private status so they can escape state regulations.
“If you look at what the charter schools are doing in Arizona, they’ve had tremendous success with a variety of curricula,” Murray said. “Unfortunately with charter schools, we’re seeing more and more regulations and more micromanagement, which goes against the whole intent of having charter schools.”
But standards are a way to ensure high-quality education at every school, said Kristen Jordison, executive director of the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools.
They also make it possible for a student to transfer from one school in the state to another without losing out on certain lessons, she said.
“Charters can still remain creative in the way they deliver the standards,” Jordison said. “Yes, it’s going to be a balancing act, but, I don’t think that precludes a school from going beyond that and teaching more.”
Nelleke VanSavooyen, director of Gem Charter School in Mesa, said she was surprised that her colleagues were having trouble with the new standards.
“Overall, it shouldn’t be a very big problem,” she said.
But some directors, including O’Neill, said that while their children will easily meet the standards, she doesn’t like the idea of standardizing the teaching methods.
And many parents come to the charters specifically because they want a true Montessori education for their children, Matthews said.
Sarita Douglas is one of those.
She sends her three children to Mission after a brief stint with local public schools left her unimpressed.
She likes the hands-on approach, and she approves of the way the school teaches social studies.
Potter said the Montessori curriculum gives parents just another option in finding out what educational style works for their child.
And Murray wants to see that continue. “The Montessori curriculum works so well for so many children,” she said, “you would hate to see that success undermined.”
What is a Montessori school?
• Developed by Maria Montessori, Italy’s first woman physician, nearly 100 years ago
• Introduced to the United States in 1912 by Alexander Graham Bell
• Montessori believed young children possess minds that “absorb” their culture and environment.
• Uses an interdisciplinary approach that presents the universe to the child in the form of an epic story — all elements of the curriculum are related to the story of the universe
• The Montessori name is not trademarked, so any school can refer to itself as Montessori. Several accreditation bodies exist, such as the American Montessori Society and the Association Montessori Internationale.
• Arizona leads the nation with the most public charter schools following Montessori methods.