On January 3, Quartz, an online publication geared to business types, published a glowing article about Montessori schools. The piece, written by reporter Jenny Anderson, is accompanied by a warm, softly lit photo of a young child stacking pink blocks, alone, while seated on a beautifully patterned Oriental rug.
The image conjures up the iconic principles of Montessori education, which emphasize children’s independence (playing and learning alone is just fine) and their interaction with natural spaces (the child in this picture is in a room with wood floors and exposed brick).
Start reading Anderson’s piece, however, and a jarring, contrasting story takes shape, as the Montessori schools she profiles are about as far from the original Montessori ideals as can be.
Anderson’s writing highlights the work of the nonprofit Wildflower Foundation, which provides seed money for Montessori schools across the United States (including Puerto Rico), thanks to an infusion of more than $10 million from such education reform heavy-hitters as the Walton and Chan-Zuckerberg foundations.
Many watchdog groups have raised red flags over the proliferation of data-capturing technology and its seemingly unregulated use in the classroom.
It makes sense to wonder why billionaire philanthropists are interested in helping promote the spread of Montessori schools, especially since such schools are typically designed, for example, to foster greater connections between children and the natural world, at a pace decidedly unlike that of today’s tech driven society.
But wait. These Wildflower are built on a “radical idea,” as Anderson puts it. The schools track and record students’ every move using sensors that spit out data, supposedly in the interest of freeing up teachers’ time.
All of this might “sound creepy,” the article points out.
But not to worry, Wildflower Schools CEO Matt Kramer assures readers. The sensors simply build on the longstanding Montessori practice of using the observation of children at play as a teaching tool for adults. The Quartz article also points out that the students’ actions will be recorded on a computer as anonymous “stick figures,” not as individual kids.
Kramer, who was until recently the co-CEO of Teach for America, has a personal blog where he delves into how he believes educational technology pairs with Montessori schools. He does not, however, address the evident creep factor in having children wear sensors at school.
Still, these sensors, and the data they collect, might just be the strings attached to the impressive funding streams the Wildflower Foundation has tapped into.
Here’s why: Educational technology and the data it can capture represent a gigantic gold mine worth billions of dollars per year. In 2019, the industry news site, EdSurge, noted that investors had poured more than $1 billion into educational technology products in the previous year, with no downturn in sight.
All of this amounts to another way for outside, private entities to capitalize on the public funds flowing to K-12 education. Using the tech-friendly notion of disruption as a battering ram, or at least a door opener, organizations such as Wildflower Schools offer investors access to a very captive audience: young children.
Kids who attend a Wildflower school may unknowingly serve as test material for theories floated by such funders as the Chan-Zuckerberg Foundation (founded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan), for example, whose website details this group’s interest in using technology to drive change in education.
This is not simply fear-mongering. Many watchdog groups have raised red flags over the proliferation of data-capturing technology and its seemingly unregulated use in the classroom. Even the Federal Bureau of Investigations issued an alert in 2018, warning that the “widespread collection of student data could have privacy and safety implications if the information is compromised or exploited.”
There is no hint of either the use of sensors or the risks associated with gathering student data on the Wildflower Schools website. Instead, it features flowery depictions of what school could be about, including the notion that these schools are great places for children and families to “follow life’s unfolding journey.” But at what cost?
For Kramer, the move from Teach for America to Wildflower Schools has been lucrative. Tax filings from the organization’s first two years in operation, 2017 and 2018, indicate that his compensation package more than doubled in one year, with his most recent salary and benefits listed at more than $300,000.
In an era of deepening inequality, when most of the nation’s children still depend on public schools, philanthropic organizations have been accused of serving as tax shelters for private interests willing and able to carry out experimental approaches to education.
This comes at the expense of state coffers, thanks to a reduction in tax revenue, which in turn limits the ability for local governments to provide a fully funded public education system, especially given the unequal funding streams present in many school districts today with wealthier areas typically able to provide more for students.
Montessori schools appear to be on the rise. Not only is the Wildflower Schools network flush with cash and seemingly ready to plant schools all over the United States (public, private, or charter), Jeff Bezos has also announced plans to pump somewhere around $2 billion into the Montessori model.
If the price for all of this is the constant monitoring and mining of data from students and teachers, will it be worth it?