Wildflower, an open-source platform for a network of single-classroom storefront Montessori schools (read more here) is moving into a new phase with the establishment of the Wildflower Foundation and the recruitment of Matt Kramer, a ten year veteran of Teach For America who recently stepped down as co-leader, as the CEO of the new Foundation.
The move from Teach for America (or TFA, as it’s widely known), a 27 year old, $300 million+ organization devoted to getting young people engaged in teaching and education in high-need public schools, to Wildflower, a much smaller, newer project organized as a platform on which people can start their own Montessori classrooms might seem like an unusual move, but for Kramer, it was a move that made sense.
Kramer encountered Teach for America in 1998 when his then-fiancée joined the program, and he left management consulting in 2005 to join TFA as Chief Program Officer and later President. When founding CEO Wendy Kopp moved up to become the chair of TFA’s governing board in 2013, Kramer and colleague Elisa Villanueva Beard were named co-CEOs, an arrangement that ended in 2015 when Matt stepped down.
The moves came as long-simmering controversy around the organization was coming to a boil and enrollments were declining. TFA began with a “big idea” in Kopp’s Princeton undergraduate thesis: “recruit high-performing college grads to teach in high-need urban and rural schools”, to address a national teacher shortage in these programs. TFA “corp members” enter a five to seven week summer training program and begin teaching right away, serving for a minimum two year commitment in urban public schools. The program grew slowly at first, not quite doubling from an incoming class of 489 in 1990 to 847 in 2000, but took off rapidly thereafter, doubling again by 2003 and reaching nearly 6,000 in 2013. The organization claims more than 50,000 alumni. Controversy and criticism came with the growth, though, and in the last few years enrollment has dropped by about 25%.
Critics of TFA charge that the training period is too short to prepare teachers, especially for the challenging conditions they encounter, that it’s wrong to send the least experienced teachers to the poorest schools, that inexpensive TFA teachers displace experienced staff, that TFA undermines teacher training and teachers unions, and that the corps members don’t stay around after two years. (2009 news coverage of the complaints can be found here)
TFA and its supporters respond that they have been wildly successful in bringing smart young people into classrooms in hard-to-staff schools, who would likely never have entered the profession, and that while (like other new teachers), many don’t stay in the classroom past the two year mark, 65% of alumni work full-time in education, as teachers, administrators, or in other roles, and 84% “work full-time in roles impacting education or low-income communities.” (TFA’s impact assessment can be found here.)
Kramer acknowledges the controversy, but defends the program as “a really important idea in a country with a really big challenge”, which channeled 50,000 young people into schools who might otherwise have been turned off by the reputation of teaching, and he feels that TFA got caught up in broader discussions about the structure and future of pubic education and became “a convenient talking point”. In his view, TFA’s successes have been, first, bringing young people into a field that needs radical change; second, challenging the idea of top down structural solutions to massive complicated problems; and third, questioning whether our conventional teacher preparation programs are the only way. In this light, his move to a radical, decentralized, alternative education program is a natural step.
Two unique aspects of Wildflower attracted Kramer: decentralization and Montessori. Having spent decades, he told me, working to make good schools for children of all backgrounds, he had experienced growing frustration with institutional structure and bureaucracy as obstacles to innovation. He began to ask himself, do we really need principals to create good schools? As it happened, Wildflower founder Sep Kamvar had been asking himself the same question — maybe, by making schools ever bigger and more complicated, we’ve created the need for administration where it doesn’t need to be there. What if schools could be very small, eliminating the need for a layer between parents and teachers, and empowering teachers to make decisions and take action autonomously? Kramer and Kamvar connect, the conversation continued, and a partnership emerged.
As for Montessori, as it turns out, it’s been part of Kramer’s life all along: his children attend an intentionally diverse Montessori charter school in Minneapolis, where he is the Board Chair. “Most of what we know about learning theory and how kids learn has been known for 100 years,” he said, “and the state of thinking just hasn’t evolved.” In Wildflower, he sees an intersection between Montessori philosophy and school structure, where teacher autonomy applies the same belief in the intrinsic goodness of children to the adults involved.
Kramer isn’t exactly a Montessori purist, though. He recognizes that Maria Montessori did “breakthrough work” in education until about 70 years ago, but feels strongly that if Montessori were still alive, she would continue to innovate, and the there are places where her methods can and should evolve. He’s attracted to Kamvar’s thinking about augmenting the core Montessori concept of observation in a world with so many technological tools, and about how that data can be used. And he’s interested in applying the Montessori principles of materials design to areas that didn’t exist in her time, such as digital logic gates, or undeveloped (in his view) areas, such as rounding and binary representation. At the same time, Wildflower has a commitment to “authentic Montessori”, looking out for non-Montessori compromises that have slipped in, such as 90-minute “Montessori choice periods” instead of full three hour work cycles, or programs that just look a lot like day care.
There’s a third aspect of Wildflower in its current expression, however, that doesn’t line up as well with Kramer’s ideals. Although Wildflower’s “spirit of generosity” principle sees schools as a “change agent for society”, the pioneer Wildflower school was not immediately successful in fostering enough generosity to make it accessible to low-income families, and currently charges a Cambridge market rate tuition. Most of the newer members of the network are tuition-based as well. Kramer is uncompromising in his ideals here:
My core view is that schools as an agent of social justice should be socio-economically diverse, and that the funding mechanism should reflect that. I’m interested in serving a diverse population, and on schools that are focused on meeting the needs of low-income children and children of color.
I asked him if this was an official Wildflower position, and he demurred slightly, as Wildflower is pretty explicitly non-hierarchical and doesn’t necessarily take official positions. “But it is my position,” he told me. “It’s what I believe in.”
Kramer was able to flesh out a bit how Wildflower works, and will work moving forward, although he emphasized that it’s a new organization still in development. The new Wildflower Foundation is an operating organization that has received significant support from a small number of national foundations and individuals focused on expanding access to excellent educational opportunities and supporting educational innovation.
Wildflower schools typically get started in one of two ways. Interested people can come to the website, learn more about the program, and apply to the Wildflower Foundation for a fellowship that provides financial and operational support for opening a school. In addition, Wildflower itself targets particular cities or regions and solicits teacher-leaders to apply for the fellowships. Since the documents on the website are open source, it’s possible for someone to get started on their own, but generally the Foundation is involved. What’s unique here, Kramer said, is that Wildflower offers an assisted path to a someone who has a dream, helping them financially and with regulatory steps, providing tools, and bringing them into a community. “It’s not just selling a pamphlet.”
Wildflower is currently explicitly focussing on several geographical areas, and the public service implementation will vary according to market conditions. The Cambridge hub is growing, with two new schools opening this fall and four or five in the beginning stages. One of the newer members is Marigold Montessori in nearby Haverhill, a private, access-oriented program with funding blended from tuition, scholarships, and state subsidies. In Denver, Wildflower plans to work with the Denver Preschool Program, which offers sliding scale tuition for every family in the city, providing up to $12,000 per year in support. In Minneapolis, Wildflower is exploring charter and innovative district options to reach low-income families. Puerto Rico has three Wildflower schools in a Commonwealth-wide public system that already has a strong Montessori component.
I asked Kramer how Wildlower would react if someone proposed a more conventional, tuition-based program without an access component, and he suggested that such a program would probably not be approved. This raises the question of what it really means to be a Wildflower school — is it truly open source, and anyone can download the documents and set up shop, or is there actually some form of certification? Kramer acknowledged this challenge. It’s true that anyone can use the ideas and documents. But the fellowship and full membership grant access to use of the name and some website features, such as a bookkeeping platform, accessible only by login. Wildflower is developing a certification pathway that’s intended to be a support system which recognizes schools in their steps on the journey to fully embodying the principles, rather than a punitive or “performance management” process. But yes, he said, if a school were to diverge broadly from the principles, de-emphasizing the Montessori for example, or expanding to multiple classrooms, it would probably not be certified.
Kramer articulated three priorities for the immediate future. First, he wants to be sure Wildflower is getting what it’s already doing right — supporting more diversity in schools, providing excellent operational and administrative support, and helping teachers do more teaching and less administration. Second, developing and building out the process of starting new schools. And third, supporting and extending the technological innovations side: building and implementing the observation tech, and extending materials design.
Finally, I asked Kramer what he most wanted people to know about Wildflower. His message was that Wildflower wants these schools to be both authentic and innovative Montessori schools, and that these goals aren’t in conflict. And he expressed his enduring support for the classroom teachers:
We deeply believe in power of teachers, when well supported and broadly empowered, to create powerful educational communities, and we want to create a platform to help teachers make brilliant schools and which allows them to focus on what they do best.