Achievement Gap

Are Montessori Schools a Better Approach for Teaching Low-Income Children?

Is the Montessori method of schooling better for low-income children? A new study that looks at Montessori preschool students by University of Virginia psychology professor Angeline Lillard suggests that it just might be. Her study tracked low-income children in Connecticut who either attended public Montessori preschools or applied but did not attend Montessori preschools. She found that the Montessori students did better by a range of indicators, including test scores.

Growth, Growth, Growth

In a phone interview in December, Lillard said, “At the start of the study they were equal in terms of demographics, parent education, income, age, gender, ethnicity. Over time, the Montessori students were doing significantly better on many measures and on none were they doing worse.” Lillard attended Montessori school as a child, while her mother opened several Montessori Head Start classrooms in Cincinnati where many public Montessori schools operate today. Her family members also run a Montessori school in Illinois. While there are around 5,000 private Montessori schools across the country, [pullquote position="left"]only about 500 of America’s 100,000 public schools are based on the Montessori method. Lillard thinks it is unfortunate that this method of educating kids has not expanded in the public education system. “There’s generally a resistance to doing anything different than the conventional program despite how poorly the conventional program has done for children who are not culturally and economically advantaged,” she said. She nevertheless highlighted growing interest in the Montessori approach, saying, “There’s a lot of energy today—a lot of people interested in seeing more Montessori. This is a model that has been there for over 100 years, and seems to do well for lower-income children.”

Teachers' Familiarity With Montessori Could Be Better

Lillard acknowledged that big city school districts will have a challenge finding teachers who are well-trained in the Montessori methods, saying, “I have seen Montessori schools with all the right materials but teachers who don’t know how to use them.” Montessori materials also require an up-front investment of about $25,000 per classroom but they last for 20-30 years so they more than pay for themselves. “Unlike conventional schools, Montessori schools do not need expensive textbooks,” Lillard said. Lillard also thinks the culture of accountability that started with No Child Left Behind has taken public education off-track and discouraged school districts from considering Montessori. “When I talk to people in education, I feel like we are talking past each other,” she said. “And the reason is that the fundamental goal in conventional education is to increase test scores, where the teacher is the conveyor of knowledge and the students receive it.” She said teachers have become too constrained by accountability. “We’ve gone way overboard with accountability. Teachers have little or no room to help children develop. Conventional schooling is not helping children find meaningful ways to live. And that’s what we should care about the most.” She also pointed out that, “Montessori students tend to do better than other children on standardized tests even though they are not taught to pass them. The aim is to develop the whole child. [They become] empathetic, caring, striving human beings, but as a side effect, they do better.” “It’s all about meeting the children and looking them in the eye. There’s a real difference with children when they feel respected,” she said.
Peter Cunningham
Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with Whiteboard ...

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