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

Jan 3, 2018 12:00:00 AM


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.[/pullquote] 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. [pullquote position="right"]Conventional schooling is not helping children find meaningful ways to live.[/pullquote] 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 Advisors, a DC-based education policy, research and communications firm. He serves on several non-profit boards, including Oakland-based Great Schools, which provides school quality information to parents through a national online platform, The Montessori School of Englewood, a Chicago public charter school, Manufacturing Renaissance, a career education program that trains public high school students for jobs in manufacturing, Unbounded, an organization supporting teachers in schools that are transitioning to higher standards, and, which is focused on financial literacy for students. Peter founded Cunningham Communications, serving public, private and nonprofit clients, worked for political consultant David Axelrod, and was a senior advisor and speechwriter for Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. A native New Yorker, Peter began his career as a journalist with small weekly newspapers in New York. He earned an M.S. in Journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in philosophy from Duke University. He is married to artist Jackie Kazarian, and they have two adult children who are proud graduates of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter joined the Education Post board in 2018 after stepping down as the organization's Executive Director.  Meet our board →

The Feed


  • What's an IEP and How to Ensure Your Child's Needs Are Met?

    Ed Post Staff

    If you have a child with disabilities, you’re not alone: According to the latest data, over 7 million American schoolchildren — 14% of all students ages 3-21 — are classified as eligible for special...

  • Seeking Justice for Black and Brown Children? Focus on the Social Determinants of Health

    Laura Waters

    The fight for educational equity has never been just about schools. The real North Star for this work is providing opportunities for each child to thrive into adulthood. This means that our advocacy...

  • Why Math Identity Matters

    Lane Wright

    The story you tell yourself about your own math ability tends to become true. This isn’t some Oprah aphorism about attracting what you want from the universe. Well, I guess it kind of is, but...