What counts as “quality” in an early childhood program?

This question is being asked a lot these days and states and countries are answering. Defining quality is the conversation du jour across the globe and Montessori schools are finding themselves in a tricky position.

A fully implemented Montessori program is going to have classrooms that are safe and beautiful. The teachers will be well-educated, respectful, and attentive to the individual needs of each child. The children will have access to an array of materials designed specifically for their developmental needs. There will be a balanced emphasis on individuals and the community.

Nobody who observed a classroom like this would argue that it is not high quality.

Yet, modern definitions of “quality” early childhood are often so narrow that a fully implemented Montessori classroom might actually not be declared to be of the highest quality, even if it is.

Where Montessori & “Quality” Diverge

Quality is measured with the wrong tool

A huge part of the issue for Montessori schools when it comes to aligning with QRIS is that much of what counts as “quality” is defined by the Environmental Rating Scale, a tool that is decidedly NOT fully aligned with Montessori.

I want to be clear, I have no problem with the Environmental Rating Scale. It is a tool that has been developed by research and refined by research over the course of several decades by some of the brightest minds in education. The problem is that the ERS is specifically designed with a focus on traditional, play-based child care.

One of the central components of Montessori curriculum for children birth through age six is the prepared environment. Our environments are inherently different. I do not see the need to alienate others by saying that they are better. I simply argue that the fundamental requirements of the Montessori philosophy regarding how the environment is prepared make it impossible to measure our quality with a tool like the ITERS or ECERS.

Our education isn’t always appropriately recognized

Montessori teacher preparation is serious business. I did my Montessori training over the course of three intense summers and two long self-led internship school years. I spent three years earning my AMI Primary Diploma and, if I had temporarily relocated from Colorado to Maryland, I could have easily converted it into a full-blown Master’s degree, as many of my classmates did.

Do you know how my home state of Colorado interprets my three intensive years of study that was nine credits short of a master’s degree? It equates to having taken two 100 level Early Childhood Education classes at the local community college. Enough to qualify me as an “early childhood teacher” but not enough to demonstrate the respect and dignity due to my level of formal education and that of so many of my fellow colleagues.

We have a problem here…

Fortunately, we have a solution slowly rolling across the US! The Montessori Accreditation Council for Teacher Education (MACTE) is the only accreditor of Montessori teacher education programs that is formally recognized by the US Department of Education and they are working to support highly educated Montessori teachers across America.

MACTE is working state by state to help ensure that they are appropriately recognizing MACTE accredited Montessori teacher education program graduates. This prevents Montessori teachers from having to take duplicate college classes, a barrier of entry for many.

Want to know if your state has an active organization that can work with MACTE to get teacher training recognized? Click HERE to find out!

Montessori needs to come together

Montessori has a bit of a sad  history in the United States. Our infighting eventually got so bad that the federal government had to intervene. That bitter battle created a decades-long (and in my opinion, totally unnecessary) rift in our massive community.

The fact that we have not been able to make basic agreements regarding the definition of Montessori in America has been a hindrance to those advocating for alternative pathways for Montessori schools in jurisdictions across the country.

Recently, the leaders of the Montessori community in America have decided that fighting over who does Montessori “better” is not in service to our pedagogy or the woman who inspires all of us.

Through the work of dozens of major Montessori leaders and organizations across America, a new focus on unity in support of all highly authentic Montessori schools has been found.

One of the great achievements of this work is the founding of the Montessori Public Policy Initiative, an organization jointly supported by AMI-USA and AMS that is focused on supporting advocacy efforts on behalf of Montessori education across the US.

Full disclosure, I sit on the MPPI council.

One of the most important things MPPI has done is take the time to answer the question that so many lawmakers and regulators have: “What is Montessori?”

They have produced a document called the “Montessori Essentials” that creates a basic standard definition of how one can tell if a school meets the basic qualifications of “Montessori.” Does it define “high quality, perfectly implemented” Montessori? No. It just lays out the basics.

Why is this important? Because it helps us lay a foundation for defining what a “Montessori” school is so that we can develop alternative pathways for Montessori schools to be assessed for quality in a way that is actually aligned with the work we do.

What to do if your school is preparing for QRIS

  • Don’t fret. So far, most of the Montessori schools I know of with quality ratings have done very well.
  • Print out the Montessori Essentials to share with your quality rater.
  • Make sure you have waivers if you use breakables and small materials. Have your waivers ready to show the quality raters.
  • Sweep your school for health and safety compliance.
  • Assess your state’s quality rubric and points system to look for opportunities to maximize your school’s points.
  • Make calculated decisions about points you will choose to let go of because they do not align with your school’s philosophical definition of quality.
  • Do safety, health, and quality sweeps of classrooms and your office several times per year.
  • Download free resources to help you prepare for your visit.

Advocating for your school

If you really want to make sure that your school has a strong reputation in your community and is considered worth protecting when you face legislative or regulatory challenges, you must be as transparent and welcoming as possible.

Here are a few ideas for how to build your school’s public reputation along with the public reputation of Montessori in your community:

  • Invite your elected officials from city council up to US Senate to tour your school and learn about Montessori. Don’t forget to have the children bake them muffins!
  • Join your state Montessori association and actively volunteer.
  • Join non-Montessori organizations in your state and actively volunteer with the mindset of being an “ambassador” for Montessori.
  • Volunteer in your community at events about children, families, and education. Wear a button that says “ask me about Montessori education” when you go.
  • Write op-eds to your local paper and share press releases about every positive thing your Montessori school/organization does.
  • Write letters to your elected officials to tell them how your school is specifically impacted by certain laws and regulations. Tell them what you think would work better and invite them to have some coffee and chat about it further.
  • Invite parents in the community to attend valuable parent education events hosted by your school.
  • Stay informed on education and policy news so that you know and understand the landscape for advocacy on your specific issues.

Download FREE resources on how to prepare your Montessori school for licensing and QRIS visits with my free e-course, Licensing & QRIS for Montessori!