Expanding Access to Montessori Education: An Opportunity for Disadvantaged Students

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.


Charlap, J. (1999). Montessori for the elementary years. Tomorrow’s Child, 7(2),
pp. 5-7.

Dohrmann, K. R., Nishida, T. K., Gartner, A., Lipsky, D. K., Grimm, K. (2007). High school outcomes for students in a public Montessori program. Journal of research in childhood education 22(2), p. 205.

Lillard, P. P. (1972). Montessori: A modern approach. New York: Schocken Books.

Lillard, A. & Else-Quest, N. (2006). Evaluating Montessori education. Science, 313, p. 1893-1894.

Lillard, A. (2012). “Preschool Children’s Development in Classic Montessori, Supplemented Montessori, and Conventional Programs.” Journal of School Psychology 50.

National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector (NCMPS). (2014, 01/15). Personal Communication.

National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector (NCMPS). (2015a, 02/08). Personal Communication.

National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector (NCMPS). (2015b) retrieved from http://www.public-montessori.org/growth-public-montessori-united-states-1975-2014 on 2/6/15.

North American Montessori Teacher Association (NAMTA). (2015). Retrieved from http://www.montessori-namta.org/FAQ/Montessori-Education/How-many-Montessori-schools-are-there on 2/6/15.

Rathunde, K. & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2005a). Middle school students’ motivation and quality of experience: A comparison of Montessori and traditional school environments. American journal of education, 111(3), pp. 341-371.

Rathunde, K. & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2005b). The social context of middle school: Teachers, friends, and activities in Montessori and traditional school environments. The elementary school journal, 106(1), pp. 59-79.

Williams, N. and Keith, R. (2000). Democracy and Montessori education. Peace review, 12(2).

Comments on this Post

  1. Montessori observed that all children had deviancies and obstacles to development. The opportunity to work at their own pace with self chosen hands-on activities is a therapeutic experience that brings a child’s attention to the present moment and builds a sense of responsibility for the challenge and for caring for the materials, for others, and for the environment. She even wrote about the deviancies of children who have advantages and are habituated to the influence or else the distraction of adults. We see these deviancies in modern classrooms and work to allow children enough time and space to overcome these obstacles and find their own way. This is where children share the challenge of constructing themselves in the adult world and this is why the gains are common among all children. Progress and development is not toward a test but toward the true becoming of the person. This extends for life and surpasses all advantages of test scores.

  2. Interesting article and responses…

    I have worked for sixteen years in a school in India that followed the Montessori program at the Primary, Elementary and Adolescent levels.

    The school, located in a rural setting, close to the city of Bangalore, had the privilege of a mixed socio-economic group of children, which I think, was very suitable for Montessori education.

    At lunch, children bonded over simple millet meals and exotic, expensive pasta – the little ones without recognition of difference, the older children with love and respect.

    Languages – English and regional, coexisted with ease and acceptance.

    Parents participated in raising funds required to meet the running expenses of the school, each family contributing generously at their levels of income. There was enough and surplus.

    Montessori Methodology, followed in the true spirit of offering an environment in support of the natural, universal process of development of the Child, works for children of all economic backgrounds and more so in a mixed setup.

  3. One thing that is particularly interesting about the test score data analyzed by NCMPS comparing 5-6 public Montessori systems to typical schools in the same school districts is to keep in mind that the Montessori schools did not “teach to the test”. Instead, those schools followed the pedagogy and the scope of “Cosmic Education” in regards to what was presented to the children, and allowed those children to choose work that was interesting to them, regardless of whether or not such work was aligned with what would be presented on a standardized test.

    Speaking as somebody who has studied neurotypical and atypical child development for 20 years, and also spent one year studying Montessori Elementary education, including no less than 300 hours of observation and 200 hours of student teaching, this is an important point. Children in Montessori environments are allowed to joyfully engage in learning how to learn, and learning in environments that promote autonomy, connectedness, and working towards mastery. Google “salience network” to see how these factors are currently understood as regards to learning theory. These are the components of what those of us in neuroscience know motivates human beings. Working for test scores or grades, for many children, actually takes away from intrinsic motivation (and “salience”), which can lead to less effective learning, which can lead to “lower test scores”.

    And actually, although we Montessorians constantly have to point out test score data to try to convince people to support this philosophy of learning with children, the real untold secret is : We don’t actually really care at all about test scores. Those scores are something “the public” thinks are important, but we actually have a lot more data from generations of alumni to suggest that our graduates find meaningful work and have very meaningful relationships with people, even “people they will never even meet” (from “The Coming of Human Beings”, a Great Story told to new children in the Elementary) as adults.

    So, since I am also a psychiatrist, one trained at a pretty much Freudian academic center, folks should know that Dr. Freud defined mental health as one’s ability to work and to love. Also, Dr. Freud and Dr. Montessori were contemporaries (and pen-pals, after a fashion), and Dr. Freud felt that if Dr. Montessori’s ideas were to become accepted around the world, it could put him and his kind out of business.

  4. Interesting article. Montessori worked with war traumatized children with developmental lags. Her method was implemented in schools that served predominantly white, middle to upper middle class children. This pattern somewhat parallels the fate of Progressive Education, which increasingly became what I have referred to in my work, as democratic education for the elite. Of course, Montessori schools would be effective, given that parents choose to send their children there and that the population is overwhelmingly privileged. The challenge is how to implement her method in pre-k and early elementary schools that serve poor and working class populations as well as how to educate teachers and parents so that there is a complete buy-in to the pedagogy. One caveat: there cannot be a “one size fits all” here. As Ravitch warns, in “The Troubled Crusade”educational reformers tend throw out the baby with the bath water.” I would hate to see the Montessori approach touted as the “silver bullet” for poor and working class children because it is so effective in another setting. Rather, before we embrace this reform, holistically, we should be looking at what we can learn from it to improve education for all our children.

    • Most, if not all, of the studies of student outcomes in Montessori schools take place in tuition-free public schools, and these studies are well-controlled (outcomes are compared to those outcomes from students matched for important variables (family income, education level, etc.; one study’s control group was children who had entered the lottery for the same Montessori charter but not gotten in, and had attended a non-Montessori charter instead). The Rathunde study was partly conducted in a private school.

      Montessori can work, in tuition free and/or public programs, for students from diverse backgrounds. But only if it is implemented by well-prepared and supported teachers who have the necessary materials and are free from restrictions preventing best Montessori practices. When those conditions are met, it’s a surprisingly cost-effective way to educate, and the outcomes are comparable to those of children from affluent families.

      I’m an AMI Montessori teacher-trainer, and I find that the biggest obstacle to getting more Montessori to more children is that our intensive training programs, with few exceptions, result in a masters in education degree that is not recognized as a teaching certificate for the public schools. And we’re working on that.

      Montessori’s first Children’s House was for the children of the working poor living in a housing project in the city of Rome. There’s every reason to think it would work for children living in poverty in our cities in this century, too. And in fact, it already does work.

    • The one commentator refers to “one size fits all”? There is no better example of this than the method of segregating all five year olds and presuming they are pretty much all the same aren’t they. Or, claiming “differentiated instruction” in conventional settings but expecting EVERYONE to successfully cross the finish line at the end of the year all at the same time. Or, how about that good old “reading group” experience most of us had growing up, carefully and subtly informing us of our superiority or lack thereof…labeling that follows the child in the most egregious way…not in the way that Dr. Montessori discovered. If one wants to know why there is not more public access to a Montessori education, one need look no further than our institutions of higher learning. If an idea did not come from academia, it must not be worth a hill of beans. Tell that to the parents of children who have benefited from over 100 years of Montessori perseverance. Montessorians aren’t keeping the secret to themselves. They are busy “following the child” and don’t have time nor the desire to toot their own horn.

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