Ideal Learning for All study
This article appears in the Fall 2021 issue of MontessoriPublic — Print Edition.
How do children of color do in Montessori settings?
By Katie Brown
and Iheoma Iruka
Researchers at the National Center for Montessori in the Public Center and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are undertaking a study to document and examine the learning experiences of children of color in Montessori and other developmental learning environments.
Complex structural factors impact Black and Latine children’s educational experience
Recent data from NWEA and McKinsey & Company continue to show that Black and Latine students were hit the hardest by school disruptions due to COVID-19. Specifically, Black and Latine students saw a steeper decline in learning and showed less growth in standardized reading and math assessments.
These pervasive disparities in educational experience and attainment remind us that factors undergirding the lower performance of children of color are diverse and complex including systemic factors such as racial and socioeconomic school segregation (Orfield, 2014; Runberger & Palardy, 2005), inequitable resource distribution (Greenwald, Hedges & Laine, 1996), and disproportionate placements of under-prepared teachers in high-poverty schools (Borman & Kimball, 2005; Darling-Hammond, 2004).
For example, the majority of Black and Latine children are likely to attend racially segregated schools, especially those with limited economic support and resources. They are also likely to go to schools and programs that are rated as lower quality and with non-credentialed teachers compared to white children. These disparities in learning opportunities also start early.
In school settings, issues of implicit bias and differential treatment have been noted. The US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights found in their 2013-14 Civil Rights Data Collection that Black public preschool children are 3.6 times more likely to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions than white preschool children. Black children represent only 19% of preschool enrollment, but represent 47% of preschool children who receive one or more out-of-school suspensions. In comparison, white children represent 41% of preschool enrollment, but only 28% of preschool children who receive one or more out-of-school suspensions.
Work from various scholars, and more recently, Gilliam and colleagues (2016) suggests that implicit bias of teachers may be the underlying cause for this “pushout” of Black children from educational settings, as they view Black children as older and more culpable (Goff, Jackson, Allison, Di Leone, Culotta, & DiTomasso, 2014). These factors are likely to make it difficult for Black children and other children of color to receive an equitable, anti-bias high quality educational experience.
Furthermore, Black, Latine, and other children of color are still dealing with the vestiges of historical and structural racism and systemic inequities including underfunding, Eurocentric curriculum, assessments, and practices, harsh discipline, and limited family engagement and support. Thus, children of color are at serious risk of underachievement due to these pervasive inequities.
Montessori can reduce outcome disparities
For decades, high quality early education, and general education writ large, has been cast as a way to bridge developmental opportunity gaps for U.S. children across disparate social and economic backgrounds, contributing to a recent surge in state-funded programs. Yet the reports of developmental benefits for children in these programs and schools have been, at best, mixed, and, too often, disappointing.
At the same time, recent findings from Lillard and colleagues (2017, 2006) indicate that Montessori, a pedagogical approach that emphasizes child-directed, freely-chosen activity and academic content, may be an effective approach in reducing the so-called achievement gap. Specifically, in an experimental study, Lillard and colleagues (2017) found that as compared to children in a control group, Montessori children performed better on measures of academic achievement, social understanding, mastery orientation, and attitudes toward learning. Strikingly, the difference in performance between lower and higher income Montessori children became smaller over time.
The Montessori approach is included in a early-childhood-education grouping developed by the Trust for Learning. Other Ideal Learning models include All Our Kin, Bank Street, the Friends Center, HighScope, Tools of the Mind, Montessori, Reggio Emilia, and Waldorf. These programs share a general alignment with eight principles which “allow for multiple approaches, models, and traditions, and take into account the varied contexts within which early educators and care providers work,” according the Trust for Learning’s Principles of Ideal Learning:
Decision-making reflects a commitment to equity
- Children construct knowledge from diverse experiences to make meaning of the world
- Play is an essential element of young children’s learning
- Instruction is personalized to acknowledge each child’s development and abilities
- The teacher is a guide, nurturing presence, and co-constructor of knowledge
- Young children and adults learn through relationships
- The environment is intentionally designed to facilitate children’s exploration, independence, and interaction
- The time of childhood is valued
- Continuous learning environments support adult development
Lillard’s work is important because it offers evidence that Ideal Learning environments such as Montessori may be particularly supportive of children from low income households and children of color. Other studies have indicated similar results (Culclasure, Fleming, Riga, & Sprogis, 2018). This points to a need to explore the classroom experiences of children of color in Montessori and similar programs couched under Ideal Learning approaches in order to understand factors that facilitate and hinder children of color’s optimal learning in these settings.
The research project described here will explore the experiences of children of color under three Ideal Learning pedagogies: Montessori, Reggio-Emilia Inspired, and HighScope. We will use two measures of classroom quality and children’s experience.
The Developmental Environment Rating Scale (DERS) (Cossentino & Brown, 2017) is an assessment of classroom quality based on three desired outcome domains: executive functions (EFs), Linguistic and Cultural Fluency, and Social Fluency and Emotional Flexibility.
The Assessing Classroom Sociocultural Equity Scale (ACSES; Curenton et al., 2020) measures teachers’ culturally responsive practices and equitable learning opportunities. It assesses the extent to which teachers are affirming children of color’s engagement in the classroom and their use of equitable and positive discipline practices across two domains: Challenging Inequity and Fostering Sociocultural Connections.
We will also interview teachers, school leaders, and parents about their perception of children of color’s experiences and opportunities in the classroom.
The long-term goal of this project is to advance more sophisticated understandings of the definition of “quality” in early learning environments. Implicit in our investigation is the assumption that quality must entail equitable and unbiased opportunities for learning. Those opportunities are visible in the behavior of both adults and children, as well as the design of the learning environment itself. The project aims to address two key questions related to equity and quality in Ideal Learning settings:
- What are the experiences of children of color in Ideal Learning settings?
- What factors hinder or support children of color’s optimal development in the classroom?
Numerous studies indicate that high-quality, sensitive, child-centered, and engaging instruction and interactions are linked to children’s outcomes and later achievement. As children of color are less likely to experience these environments in general education, there is a need to explore whether they are similar in programs that purport to be child-centered, developmental, individualized, and culturally sensitive. The findings from this study will provide preliminary information on the experiences of children of color in Ideal Learning settings and what factors promote or hinder their positive development in the classroom.
We plan to gather data from Montessori, Reggio Emilia-inspired, and HighScope early childhood classrooms across the country over the course of the 2021-2022 school year. Once data collection is complete, we’ll analyze the data from DERS and ACSES, then combine those findings with what we learn from interviews with educators and parents in those schools. We’ll share our work in peer-reviewed journals as well as practitioner oriented publications. Ultimately, we hope this project will bring attention to how children of color experience teaching and learning in Ideal Learning settings.