By Angela K. Murray, PhD | Assistant Research Professor, University of Kansas and Senior Researcher, American Montessori Society
Our nation struggles to prepare students for success in a modern economy. Some U.S. students are fortunate enough to be taught the necessary twenty-first century skills, but it is often a matter of chance or familial wealth rather than the deliberate design of our school system. Helping our most vulnerable children enjoy full participation requires not only strong academic skills, but also so-called “social capital,” capacities. Academic skills are important, but so is the ability to collaborate effectively, solve novel problems, and engage with confidence in the wider world. Montessori schools consistently demonstrate academic, social, and emotional success and offer an under-utilized resource for education policy.
What is Montessori?
The Montessori pedagogy was founded by Italian physician Maria Montessori [1870-1952]. Dr. Montessori’s philosophy of child development encompassed the whole child rather than only his academic achievement. Her pedagogy sought to create an optimal environment that would nurture children’s intelligence, creativity, and emotional awareness (Lillard, P., 1972) and that would prepare children for democratic citizenship (Williams & Keith, 2000).
A Montessori education thus brings an individualized approach to a long-term and community-oriented perspective. Children remain with the same teacher in multiage classrooms for three years, thus allowing for continuity in the learning experience. Within this environment, children work at their own pace with opportunities for cooperative learning in small groups according to ability and interest (Charlap, 1999). Montessori programs limit whole group instruction, grades and tests, and instead focus on student-chosen work with specially designed materials during long blocks of uninterrupted time (Lillard, A. & Else-Quest, 2006). According to the National Montessori Census which includes both public and private programs, more than three-quarters of Montessori schools serve the early childhood level and almost as many offer elementary education. Just over half of Montessori schools reported programs for children under three, but a much smaller proportion included children over 12. Obviously, many schools serve multiple levels, so overlap exists in these estimates (NCMPS, 2015a).
Does Montessori Work?
So far, so good: the Montessori philosophy and practice fit well within the longstanding goals for American education. But does Montessori actually work? A growing body of evidence demonstrates the success of this holistic approach in achieving strong results on both academic and socio-emotional student outcomes. A number of large, urban public school districts (Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Hartford, Denver, Dallas, and Chicago) have successfully implemented Montessori as a small part of their magnet, charter, and neighborhood schools. Based on school report card data, these Montessori public schools demonstrate superior academic results relative to other schools in their respective districts: the proportion of grades 3-6 students scoring at or above “proficient” on the states’ tests in in both English and math is higher in nearly every case. In fact, Montessori schools outperformed district results in 44 out of 46 comparisons and by an average of almost twenty percentage points (NCMPS, 2014).
Perhaps even more compelling is the fact that a peer-reviewed study published in the Journal of Research in Childhood Education shows that these early Montessori gains persist in mathematics achievement even after 7 years of traditional schooling. This particular study examined children who attended Milwaukee Public Montessori schools from ages 3 to 11 to a matched set of non-Montessori children who graduated from the same rigorous high schools. The children from Montessori backgrounds were superior to their peers on math and science assessments and were on par on English and social studies tests and grades. The authors suggest that such results may be due to the Montessori math curriculum’s being distinctive and highly consistent, incorporating concrete abstraction and early exposure to complex mathematical concepts (Dohrmann, et al., 2007).
A number of other recently published peer-reviewed studies involving Montessori students from preschool through adolescence also demonstrate strong academic results along with effective development of “soft skills.” One analysis compared Montessori private preschoolers to non-Montessori children with similarly well-educated parents. The results showed that the schools with a strong implementation of Montessori pedagogy demonstrated stronger school year gains in executive function, reading, math, vocabulary, and social problem-solving (Lillard, A., 2012).
Another peer-reviewed study compared outcomes for kindergarten and elementary aged students who attended an urban public Montessori school serving predominantly minority children to similar non-Montessori public school students by using lottery selection as a method of randomization. Five-year-olds in the Montessori programs evidenced superior results across many areas, including better scores on reading and math standardized tests, more positive interaction on the playground, more advanced social cognition and executive control, and more concern for fairness and justice. The twelve-year-olds enrolled in Montessori programs also showed superior strengths on socio-emotional measures; they showed more positive responses to stories depicting social dilemmas such as a situation in which children are having difficulty taking turns on the swing set. They also reported a stronger sense of community at school with more positive responses to statements such as, “Students in my class really care about each other” and “Students in this class treat each other with respect.” In addition, the older Montessori children’s essay compositions were rated as being more creative and as having a more sophisticated sentence structure than those of non-Montessori students (Lillard, A., 2006).
Finally, Rathunde and Csikszentmihalyi (2005a,b) examined outcomes of Montessori education at the adolescent level in a group of suburban and rural schools. The researchers used questionnaires and the Experience Sampling Method (ESM) where students were signaled eight times each day for a week and were asked to complete a short response form of their activities and feelings in that moment. They found that Montessori students were more positively engaged at school, articulated more positive perceptions of school and teachers, and were more likely to perceive classmates as friends. These adolescents also reported more energized feelings, stronger intrinsic motivation as well as more undivided interest and flow experience. Undivided interest was gauged by the amount of time students reported high intrinsic motivation (i.e., enjoyment, interest, and desire to be doing the activity) coincident with high salience (i.e., challenge level and importance of the activity). Similarly, flow was ascertained as times in which students were engaged in activities that were above average in both challenge level and required skills. The authors hypothesize that a rich social environment such as that found in Montessori adolescent programs yields deep engagement, enjoyment and concentrated work, compared to environments that reflect competition, ability grouping, and public evaluation, and that diminish student choice and cooperation
There are approximately 20,000 Montessori schools worldwide and 4,500 in the United States (NAMTA, 2015). However, only 500 of the 4,500 U.S. Montessori schools are in the public sector, which means that access to Montessori education is limited primarily to those with the means to pay for a private education (NCMPS, 2015b). As policymakers search for proven pathways of success for disadvantaged children, they should consider expanding the availability of Montessori education to more of our public school students. If we are to have a more equitable and effective public education system, skills that have been the province of the few must become universal.
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