National News

Jeff Bezos Cites a Big Number, but Few Details, in Plan for Low-Income Montessori Preschools

Posted September 21, 2018 11:09 a.m. EDT

When Jeff Bezos announced last week that he and his wife, MacKenzie Bezos, would create and operate a national network of Montessori preschools, few were more surprised than Montessori organizations and leaders themselves.

In a statement released on Twitter, Jeff Bezos, the chief executive of Amazon and the wealthiest person in the world, said the preschools would be “in underserved communities.” He continued, “We’ll use the same set of principles that have driven Amazon. Most important among those will be genuine, intense customer obsession. The child will be the customer.”

News of the initiative, called the Bezos Day One Fund, came with an eye-popping commitment: $2 billion, some of which will support organizations that help homeless families.

But with high-profile education gifts from tech titans like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg not always going according to plan, Bezos’ announcement, the corporate language he used in it and the many unanswered questions it raised have made some in the education world wary. Leaders of a half-dozen prominent Montessori groups said that although they were excited by Bezos’ commitment to Montessori, they had not yet spoken to the Bezos family or their representatives, and did not know which Montessori experts, if any, were advising the project.

Rebecca Pelton, president of the Montessori Accreditation Council for Teacher Education, said a key challenge would be recruiting and training enough quality teachers to staff the network’s schools. She warned against online-only teacher-training programs, which have proliferated, but may not offer hands-on student teaching experience in Montessori classrooms.

Still, Pelton said, “I have faith that he’s going to do the research and ask the right questions.”

Montessori’s unique combination of freedom and rigidity — a famously “child-centered” practice with a host of rules and restrictions — can make its classrooms look drastically different from traditional ones.

Students span a three-year age range, say, between 3 and 5. Dressing up or talking about fairies or superheroes is not allowed. Instead of a play kitchen, there may be a real one, where students might pour their own juice into a glass cup, not a plastic one, so that they will learn the lesson that a glass can break if they are careless.

And every day, students get three-hour blocks of unscheduled, uninterrupted “work” time — the word “play” is not used — in which they are free to choose their activities, whether finger-painting or sorting wooden pegs.

More than half of American 3-year-olds, and a third of American 4-year-olds, did not attend preschool in 2016, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Ensuring access to quality early education has been a major goal of policymakers in recent years. Most federal and state money is earmarked for children from low-income households, though cities such as New York and Washington have started free prekindergarten programs that are open to all children.

It is unclear how many schools Bezos’ network will consist of, where they will be located and whether they will cooperate or compete with existing Montessori programs that aim to serve children from low-income families. Those schools are typically funded through a mix of taxpayer dollars, philanthropic support and tuition from parents who can afford to pay.

Of the 5,000 Montessori schools in the United States, only about 10 percent are public. Tuition at private Montessori preschools in urban centers can reach $30,000 per year. For schools, the startup costs are significant, with a full set of Montessori materials costing between $25,000 and $50,000 per classroom.

Bezos said his schools would be “full scholarship,” implying, some observers thought, that the network would be fully private, with seats reserved for poor children, as opposed to a more common public-private partnership, with an integrated mix of students from different backgrounds.

A model that forgoes government dollars and parent tuition would most likely serve fewer children than the hybrid approach. But it would also free Bezos from some of the bureaucratic burdens that public schools must contend with.

An Amazon spokesman, Drew Herdener, declined to answer questions about plans for the preschools.

Some Montessori advocates said that despite their mystification over the details, they were thrilled with news of the fund and its potential to inspire policymakers and other donors.

“The first reaction is, ‘Wow, that’s a ton of money,'” said Keith Whitescarver, executive director of the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector. “It leads to changing the ecosystem.”

With little else to parse, Montessori leaders pored over Bezos’ brief statement, which described the planned schools as “Montessori-inspired.” The term “Montessori” is not copyrighted, and any school can choose to describe itself as such.

Some research, however, shows that Montessori classrooms that hew closest to the original principles of the movement’s founder, Dr. Maria Montessori, are more effective at raising student achievement than programs with a looser approach.

Bezos attended a Montessori preschool in Albuquerque in the 1960s and is one of several tech industry leaders with personal ties to the method. The Google founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, have attributed some of their success to their Montessori educations. Montessori’s reframing of child’s play as “work,” driven by the child’s choices and interests, is, in many ways, a natural fit for Silicon Valley’s culture of founder-driven entrepreneurship and innovation.

But the movement has always faced challenges in appealing to parents who desire a more traditional education for their children. In a classic Montessori school, teachers generally do not lecture in front of the classroom and instead impart lessons on phonics or counting by engaging students individually or in small groups. They may invite children to participate in an activity, but do not require them to do so. That is counterintuitive for many traditionally trained educators. “Instead of having one lesson plan, you have 24 different lesson plans, one for each child in the classroom,” said Katie Kitchens, a Montessori specialist at a public school in Austin, Texas, and the vice president of Montessori for Social Justice, which seeks to expand the movement’s reach. “It’s a really humbling process. You’re no longer the center of that conversation anymore, the keeper of all the information. It’s this constant process of stepping back.”

Montessori has the image as “this cultish thing” for middle-class and wealthy families, Whitescarver acknowledged. But the movement has long tried to serve a more diverse group of children. In 1907, Montessori opened her school Casa dei Bambini, or Children’s House, in a poor neighborhood in Rome.

The first Americans to embrace Montessori were in fact affluent, white suburbanites. But by the 1960s, black and Latino parents were opening Montessori schools in many cities, attracted by the idea that a child-centered education could combat racism. Those programs often had trouble winning the philanthropic support they needed to survive, according to Mira Debs, executive director of the education studies program at Yale.

Faybra Hemphill, director of racial equity, curriculum and training at City Garden Montessori School in St. Louis, said she was curious to see what the Bezoses have planned. On a small scale, City Garden is already doing the work Bezos said he aspired to; about 40 percent of the school’s students come from low-income families and half are nonwhite.

Hemphill said she had some advice.

The Bezoses should come to the work, she said, with “radical listening and radical humility. Go to the communities, talk to parents, talk to children, talk to teachers and administrators and ask them: ‘What do you need? What are your hopes and dreams for education and for your children?'”

“Because otherwise,” she added, “what will happen is that we’re doing this to the community instead of for the community.”