Dr. Angeline Lillard, author of some of the most significant Montessori research performed to date (in her 2005 book, in 2006, and in 2012), has a substantial new study out in Frontiers in Psychology: Montessori Preschool Elevates and Equalizes Child Outcomes: A Longitudinal Study. The three-year study of children in AMI recognized public Montessori schools in Hartford, Connecticut presents two dramatic results. First, Montessori children rated higher in academic achievement, social cognition, mastery orientation, and school enjoyment. Second, and even more significant for Montessori and education reform, “Montessori education greatly reduced the achievement gap across the preschool years.” The study is clearly written, with line after quotable line of strong support for Montessori interspersed with crunchy statistical data, and should really be read and studied directly, but they key findings are summarized here.
First, a little about the study and how it’s framed. Lillard starts by contrasting typical programs, which are either teacher-led and didactic, or free and open, with more play but less academic content. Montessori bridges that divide, offering child-directed, freely-chosen activity with deep academic content, elements which are known to drive positive outcomes. Montessori, which, Lillard observes, “aligns with principles and practices that a century of research has shown are more optimal for child development”, is an excellent candidate for preschool research.
Structurally, the study considered 141 children who entered a lottery for Hartford-area public Montessori schools, of whom half entered Montessori and half did not, providing a randomized, demographically similar sample. The study followed the children for three years, testing them initially and at one year intervals thereafter. The Montessori children were enrolled in high-fidelity, AMI-recognized schools with a full three-year age span covering ages three to six, a full set of Montessori materials, and AMI trained teachers. Previous research, while suggesting positive outcomes for Montessori, has been limited by poor controls, small sample sizes, and varying levels of Montessori fidelity. This study addresses all of these issues.
Although equal at the start of school, the Montessori group advanced at a higher rate across the study years.
Academic achievement was measured by the Math, Letter-Word, and Picture Vocabulary subtests of the Woodcock–Johnson IIIR Tests of Achievement, a widely used instrument with high reliability and validity. Cursive letters were used for earlier items in the Letter-Word test with the Montessori children, to align with their classroom experiences. Interestingly, the differences in achievement appeared only at the end of the second year of the study, suggesting an effect of continuous exposure to Montessori. Gains were consistent across academic areas, even when results were controlled for family income, gender, and executive function.
Social Cognition—Theory of Mind
Social cognition developed more rapidly in children attending Montessori schools.
Social cognition was measured with tasks from Wellman and Liu’s Theory of Mind scale (Knowledge Access, Contents False Belief, Diverse Beliefs, and Hidden Emotion), which measures children’s ability to reason about other people’s perceptions and beliefs, and predicts later social competence. For one task,
Children were shown what was hidden in the drawer of a doll-house-sized bureau, and then shown a doll who they were told had not seen inside the drawer. They were asked if the doll knew what was inside the drawer, and if the doll had seen inside the drawer.
Again, the Montessori children started out similar to the control group and improved steadily over three years, showing significant gains after two years.
Children [in] a Montessori program were more likely to have a growth mindset by the latter half of their preschool years.
Mastery orientation, a personal quality associated with a “growth mindset—a belief that with effort one can master challenges and increase one’s abilities,” was measured with a test in which children were presented with a simple puzzle and an unsolvable puzzle, and then offered the opportunity to go back to one or the other. By the second year, the Montessori children were more likely to choose the harder puzzle, saying things like “Because I think I can do it.”
Montessori children were relatively more positive about school-related activities … [suggesting that] achievement gains were not at the expense of their enjoying school.
School enjoyment was measured with a questionnaire, and young children’s tendency to give the highest possible ratings on such instruments was controlled for by some clever testing protocols.
Executive Function, Social Problem Solving, and Creativity
Although previous work has shown gains for Montessori children across these domains, in this study the Montessori and control groups showed no differences, except for executive function, which showed a statistically significant advantage for Montessori in four year-olds which declined to a slight advantage by the end of the study. Interestingly, however, initial executive function measurements, which typically predict academic achievement, did so in the control group but not in the Montessori children. Montessori children with low executive function scores showed the same academic gains as their more able peers.
Even with these striking outcomes for Montessori children in the study, by far the most powerful finding is the effect on the so-called “achievement gap”. First broadly recognized in the 1966 Coleman Report, the gap is the persistent disparity in educational achievement across socioeconomic, racial, and gender divides. Now considered along with an “opportunity gap”, which recognizes the disparate opportunities and life experiences across those same divides, the gap has been stubbornly resistant to decades of education reform, to the extent that “zip code is destiny” has become an education byword.
But Lillard’s study suggests otherwise:
Montessori education greatly reduced the achievement gap across the preschool years.
The high correlation between income and academic achievement is well established in education research, and was present in the control group. Surprisingly, the correlation in the Montessori group at the end of the study was half that of the control. Over the course of the study, the low-income Montessori children made significantly greater academic gains compared to the control group, so the gap at the initial measurement was reduced by two-thirds by the end, to a statistical dead heat. According to Lillard, another year of Montessori might have eliminated the gap entirely. Within the control group, the gap remained the same. This is a revolutionary finding with have enormous implications for education reform and social justice in the United States.
Lillard follows up with some intriguing speculations about the reasons for the observed effects, and directions for future research. For academic achievement, it’s possible that the Montessori materials themselves, with their characteristics of embodied learning, embedded spatial relationships (in mathematics materials in particular), and inherent order, and their logical and interesting nature, might be responsible. Social cognition and Theory of Mind outcomes could be due to mixed-age classrooms, which offer a range of social interactions; limited materials, which create opportunities for social conflicts to arise; or an emphasis on concentration. Mastery orientation could relate to the Montessori emphasis on intrinsic motivation rather than external rewards, and to the focus on repetition towards mastery built into the materials and the curriculum. School enjoyment could spring from student choice. Even a negative result, where executive function did not predict academic achievement for the Montessori children, might arise from the differentiated instruction integral to Montessori: teachers may be supporting children with lower executive function more effectively. All of these are interesting avenues for future study.
Maybe it’s the teachers
It’s also possible that Montessori teachers, in addition to or instead of the curriculum, are responsible for the gains. Perhaps prospective Montessori teachers are just better teachers to start with. Montessori teacher education at MTCNE, an AMI training center in Hartford where most of the teachers trained, while intense and rigorous, is not so selective as to have higher standards than some early childhood education programs, but it may attract different kinds of people.
Or maybe the training itself makes better teacher. An AMI course typically involves nine months of lectures, demonstration, observation and practice teaching, the creation of individual teaching manuals (“albums”), and oral and written exams, delivered by trainers with at least five years in the classroom and a multi-year trainer apprenticeship. And, rather than surveying a range of education models, it focuses intensely on Montessori theory and practice. Montessori training supports a loving and warm outlook towards children coupled with high expectations, attitudes which are known to support academic achievement. All of these aspects are recommended for further study.
And further study is what we should expect. These findings:
High fidelity Montessori preschool programs are more effective than other business-as-usual school programs at elevating the performance of all children, while also equalizing outcomes for subgroups of children who typically have worse outcomes.
are provocative and compelling, and Lillard points to 400+ public Montessori programs in the U.S. as sites for broader research:
A large-scale study should examine outcomes in many more public Montessori schools, with an eye to Montessori implementation fidelity, as well as teachers and their training. The present study supports the legitimacy of such a study to determine more definitively if Montessori education should be implemented at scale.