There’s so much important news in this that it’s hard to get it all in one sentence.
Next, federally funded. This is the first focused Montessori research study to receive funding from the federal Institute for Education Sciences, or IES. For more on what that means, see below.
Then, study scope and research design. The study is a randomly-controlled trial (RCT) model, the “gold standard” for research studies. Children who won random lottery admittance to one of 18 public Montessori schools will be compared to those who didn’t get in (almost 500 children in total), eliminating selection bias. The Furman study, with 7,000 children from 45 schools, was much larger, but was not able to use random assignment.
Finally, Angeline Lillard. The prominent Montessori researcher, author of several important studies and the groundbreaking Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius (now in its 3rd edition), will be a co-principal investigator on the project, guiding the Montessori aspects of the research.
Altogether, this is a really big deal.
So how did this happen?
What does it take to get national attention for Montessori research?
As it happens, two more-or-less unconnected threads in the education research world came together to create this opportunity.
The first thread is the fallout from a prominent pre-K effectiveness study in Tennessee completed in 2015. For decades, researchers and policy-makers have focused on pre-Kindergarten as an intervention to address persistent race and income disparities in “school readiness” and later academic achievement in U.S. children. However, the research supporting pre-K rests mostly on studies of two programs from the 60s and 70s: the Perry Preschool Project and the Abecedarian Project. Both programs were intensive, well-funded, and seen as challenging to replicate at large scale. More broadly implemented early childhood programs have delivered mixed results at best, with a well-documented “fadeout” effect where early academic gains seem to dissipate in later grades.
In 2013, researchers Mark Lipsey and Dale Farran began an IES-funded study of Tennessee’s Voluntary Prekindergarten Program (TN-VPK), a lottery-based, full-day prekindergarten program with statewide uniform standards serving low-income and at risk children. The lottery allowed for a randomized controlled trial research design, in which 773 TN-VPK children were compared with 303 control children through second grade on a variety of cognitive and non-cognitive measures.
In 2015, Lipsey and Farran released some dismaying results. While the pre-K participants had showed early gains on achievement tests, teacher ratings, and work skills, by the end of kindergarten, the advantages had disappeared, and by the end of 2nd and 3rd grade, work skills, attitudes about school, and academic scores had not just “faded out”, but had fallen below the control group. The children were actually worse off for having participated in pre-K.
Naturally, these findings caused quite a stir in the education research world, in particular at the American Institutes for Research (AIR). AIR is a 70-year-old preeminent behavior and social research nonprofit with a budget of nearly $500 million, funding research, evaluation, assessment, technical assistance, and systems for governments and government agencies around the world. The researchers at AIR were curious about the grade school drop-off: was it some kind of “burnout”, caused by early academic emphasis in the Pre-K program? They wondered if Montessori, despite being academically strong, might not show this “burnout” effect.
This is where the second strand weaves in. In 2016, prominent Montessori researcher Dr. Angeline Lillard was wrapping up a study in Hartford public Montessori preschools, (funded by the Brady Education Foundation), in which Montessori children rated higher in academic achievement, social cognition, mastery orientation, and school enjoyment. Even more important, according to the study, “Montessori education greatly reduced the achievement gap across the preschool years.” (Read more about the Hartford study here.) This work was the latest manifestation of steady growth in significant, well-recognized Montessori research going back to Lillard’s 2005 book, Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius and including her 2006 Milwaukee Public Schools study, her 2012 and 2016 “classic versus supplemented Montessori” papers, and the 2011-2016 Furman study in South Carolina, among other work. This “golden age of Montessori research” has been made possible in part by the recent collaboration across Montessori organizations facilitated by the Trust for Learning.
“Out of the blue one day,” Dr. Lillard said, but most likely because of her prominence in the field of Montessori research, AIR invited her to partner with them on a grant proposal to the U.S. government’s Institute for Education Science (IES), to help answer the “burnout” question. And this is where Montessori research hits the big time.
The IES is the “statistics, research, and evaluation arm of the U.S. Department of Education”, created in 2002 as part of the No Child Left Behind Act to implement the requirement that education reform efforts should reflect “scientifically based research standards” such as randomized controlled trials. The Institute issues hundreds of millions of dollars in grants annually ($230 million in 2016, $170 million in 2017), typically in awards of $1 million or more. AIR has a close relationship with the IES, with expertise in developing grant proposals for the institute and having recently won a five-year, $17.6 million bid to manage the Institute’s What Works Clearinghouse.
Dr. Lillard had applied to the IES for funding before—for what became the Hartford study, in fact, in 2007. But reviewers were not positive; one stated that there was no practical need for a study of Montessori education. As an indicator of the state of Montessori research at the national level, a search for “Montessori” in the What Works Clearinghouse (which is clearly not up to date on Montessori research) yields just this:
As of December 2005, no studies of Montessori Method were found that fell within the scope of the Early Childhood Education review protocol and met WWC evidence standards. Therefore, the WWC is unable to draw any research based conclusions about the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of Montessori Method to improve outcomes in this area.
This time the response at IES would be different. After an initial rejection, the AIR-UVA/Lillard study has been funded. Methodologically, it essentially extends the Hartford study to 18 schools nationwide meeting the following criteria:
- Lottery-based enrollment beginning with three-year olds
- Ideally, two-and-a-half to three-hour work periods daily
- At least 75% AMI or AMS certified teachers
AIR and Lillard plan to use some of the same measures from the Hartford study, including the widely used Woodcock-Johnson tests as well as social-emotional assessments. At the start of Montessori Primary, children will be assessed with 45 minutes of simple games, which will be repeated at the end of the school year for three years. Researchers will also be using two classroom environment measures: the well-established Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS), and the Developmental Environment Rating Scale (DERS), developed by the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector specifically to evaluate developmental environments such as Montessori classrooms. In addition, the team is developing a Montessori implementation scale for this study, so Montessori implementation can be correlated with the outcome measures.
Because there are limited schools meeting criteria, and a new Brady-funded study taps similar schools and is launching simultaneously, getting sufficient numbers of children is a concern. Sites will be finalized this summer and fall, and are expected to include clusters in Hartford and New Haven, Washington DC, and Dallas, among others. Cohorts of children will be assembled from lotteries in spring 2019, and baseline testing will begin in September 2019. People with information about potential sites and measures can write directly to Angeline Lillard at firstname.lastname@example.org.