Largest Ever Montessori Study: Strengths Across Race and Income
The results from the Riley-Furman study, the largest, most comprehensive study of Montessori education ever conducted, are in, and they look great for Montessori. Montessori students in a state-wide system met more standards and showed more growth, especially in low-income and black sub-groups, showed more creativity, and had fewer absences, discipline events and suspensions. Montessori fidelity was measured, and barriers to full implementation were identified.
MontessoriPublic readers may recall this piece from 2016, after data collection was complete but before detailed analysis had been done. The full results are similar to what was reported earlier, but with additional detail and nuance. The 2016 article has more information on the background and design of the study. You can read the full report here, summaries here, and the Executive Summary here.
The study looked at 45 public Montessori schools enrolling more than 7,000 students from three years old through eighth grade. The findings are grouped into six areas: Student Demographics, Academic Outcomes, Affective Outcomes, and Behavioral Outcomes, as well as Fidelity to the Model and Teacher Perceptions. These last two offer in some ways the most intriguing insights.
Student Demographics: The distribution hasn’t changed much in the detailed analysis, although the numbers have gone up. Over the course of the study, from 2012 to 2017, South Carolina’s public Montessori system has grown from 40 to 46 schools, now serving 7,400 students, up from 6,300. By comparison, this is out of about 1200 public schools serving 740,000 students, so while South Carolina has more public Montessori schools than any other state (but not Puerto Rico, which boasts 50), it’s still a tiny percentage. Public Montessori students in South Carolina are somewhat whiter and higher-income than the system as a whole, even though most Montessori programs are in Title I schools. Most are also charter schools or “schools of choice” within traditional programs, so this finding offers a wealth of data for researchers studying racial and income disparities in public Montessori and choice programs.
Academic Outcomes: The full report adds nuance to the preliminary findings that Montessori students have small but significant improved outcomes. They were more likely to have met state standards in the four areas measured: English language arts (ELA), math, social studies and science. They showed more growth over the years of study in ELA than other students, with mixed or neutral results in the other areas. Interestingly, and corroborating Angeline Lillard’s recent work in Hartford public Montessori schools, low-income and black Montessori students showed more growth in ELA and social studies (and low-income students in math a well) than their traditional peers. The full report also explains how selection bias was controlled for: Montessori students in the study were compared with a non-Montessori cohort matched for gender, race, English as a second language status, special education status, free/reduced priced lunch status, and previous test scores. In addition, according to the study, “Only those students in schools that met a minimum level of fidelity were considered Montessori students in the outcomes analyses.”
Affective Outcomes: Preliminary results suggested higher executive function performance for Montessori students, but more detailed analysis gave mixed results. The full report considers executive function as well as creativity, social skills, and work habits, and offers a number of caveats: these outcomes are difficult to measure, valid and reliable instruments were limited, and the longitudinal age range presented challenges. 100 Montessori students in a “no choice” enrollment school were matched with 100 non-Montessori students to reduce selection bias. Executive function results were mostly inconclusive, although Montessori students did outscore non-Montessori students on the NIH Toolbox assessment for one year of the study. In social skills and work habits, Montessori students also showed minimal differences from the control group. However, Montessori students stood out on a creativity assessment.
Behavioral Outcomes: Consistent with the preliminary results, the final report showed that Montessori students had higher attendance, fewer discipline incidents, and fewer suspensions than other students. This is an intriguing result worthy of some additional study. Montessori students seem to enjoy school, which may be a good in itself and would certainly be expected to drive other outcomes. In addition, the effect of absence, discipline incidents, and suspensions extends well beyond the student affected—with these lower levels, other students in the classroom are in an environment with a more consistent peer group and fewer disruptions.
Fidelity to the Model: We know from other research (Lillard, 2012) that high-fidelity Montessori is associated with better outcomes, so this was a crucial element to examine. Fidelity was measured by principal surveys and observations of 126 classrooms by Montessori trained teaches using instruments developed by Montessori leaders and professional organizations. Overall, out of 44 programs (comprising multiple classrooms), 22 were rated as high fidelity, 14 as mid fidelity, and 8 as low fidelity. Programs showed strengths in the areas of classroom climate, credentialed teachers, uninterrupted work time, “demonstration of the Montessori philosophy in the classroom”, and student engagement. Deficits were found in prepared environments, Montessori materials, “an appropriate number of lesson/demonstrations”, and observation/record-keeping. Fidelity was strongest at the primary level and dropped off over time.
Several charts from the report go into detail about environment and pedagogical practices in the Montessori schools:
It’s easy to see both what the South Carolina public Montessori schools are doing well, and some changes that might be within easy reach. 94% of lessons are consistently or somewhat consistently being given individually or to small groups, which is a strong showing (although of course 100% would be even stronger). Only 58% introduce Great Lessons early in the year—assuming Primary classrooms were not included in this question, this seems like an easy target for improvement. Likewise, if only half the programs have room for rugs on the floor in most of their classrooms, this could be easily addressed.
Barriers to full implementation: Crucially, the researchers asked principals and teachers what made it difficult to “do Montessori”. Principals most commonly cited state and district mandates, with 22% reporting that their schools focus a lot on preparing for assessments, and 75% saying that “state, district, and federal mandates impact their ability to implement authentic Montessori to some extent.”
Teachers reported barriers as well: listing testing requirements, children with special needs, and lack of planning time as the top three circumstances having an impact.
The researchers and funders associated with the Riley Institute at Furman that made this happen have delivered a phenomenal contribution to Montessori research, which is already getting play in education news outlets such as Education Week and The 74. This, along with Lillard’s work, are beginning to push back on the “but where’s the research?” question Montessori has long faced, as well as laying the foundation for ever deeper and more detailed studies.
David worked in private Montessori for more than twenty years as a parent, three-to-six year-old and adolescent teacher, administrator, writer, speaker, and advocate. In 2016 he began working with the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector. David lives in Portland, Oregon.