Montessori as a reading intervention
This article appears in the Fall 2021 issue of MontessoriPublic — Print Edition.
Some states need solid research to use Montessori
by David Ayer
and Angeline Lillard
The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA, the broad US Education policy law that replaced No Child Left Behind in 2015) encourages, and in some cases requires, schools and districts to use only “evidence-based” interventions with students. ESSA sets out four “Tiers” of evidence-based criteria ranging from “Strong Evidence—supported by one or more well-designed and well-implemented randomized control experimental studies” (Tier 1) to “Demonstrates a Rationale—practices that have a well-defined logic model or theory of action, are supported by research, and have some effort underway by an SEA, LEA, or outside research organization to determine their effectiveness.”
Some public Montessori schools have run into difficulties using Montessori as a reading intervention (not as an approved curriculum) because the research is relatively sparse and the What Works Clearinghouse, a federal Department of Education digital research library and review service is not always up to date on the latest studies—their most recent review of Montessori research (“finding no studies of Montessori Method that fell within the scope of the Early Childhood Education review protocol and met WWC design standards”) took place in 2005.
MontessoriPublic consulted prominent Montessori researcher Dr. Angeline Lillard about the subject. This is what she told us:
Rigorous studies showing reading/writing/language arts outcomes for students in Montessori schools versus other programs do exist.
In one study (Courtier, P. et. al., 2021) in Lyons, France, Montessori children unequivocally excelled in reading by the end of the kindergarten, although the sample was small and the Montessori implementation had some concerning limitations (in particular, the teachers were not trained).
A study (Lillard et al., 2017) conducted in public Montessori schools in Hartford, CT (with more rigorous implementation) also showed language arts gains for Montessori children. Results were particularly striking for lower income children as the so-called “achievement gap” was significantly reduced by the end of preschool.
An earlier lottery-design study (Lillard & Else-Quest, 2006) in a single Milwaukee public Montessori school, serving mainly African American children, also showed higher reading performance for Montessori students.
For Elementary programs, the same study found that 12-year-olds who had gotten into public Montessori by lottery at age 3 wrote significantly more creative essays, and used significantly more complex sentence structures in those essays, relative to controls.
The large “Riley-Furman Study” (Culclasure, B., Fleming, D. J., & Riga, G. (2018)), involving state tests scores of over 7000 children in South Carolina’s public Montessori network, found that children in Montessori advanced significantly more in reading that the comparison group.
A more recent study (Snyder, A., Tong, X., & Lillard, A. S. (2021)) examined English Language Arts proficiency levels of public Montessori schools for 3rd and 8th grade. In every analysis (overall, Black students, Hispanic students, Economically-disadvantaged students), controlling for the percent of children at the school on free lunch, disability status, and % marginalized race/ethnicity, at both 3rd and 8th grades, Montessori schools outperformed their districts on ELA proficiency. Achievement gaps by income and Black/White students were consistently smaller in Montessori schools, and 8th grade proficiency controlling for 3rd grade proficiency was consistently greater, suggesting growth across this age span.
There are other studies of public Montessori school reading outcomes, the bulk of which show Montessori language performance outcomes that range from positive to neutral. A forthcoming rigorous meta-analysis will validate this result more concretely.
Courtier, P., Gardes, M. L., Van der Henst, J. B., Noveck, I. A., Croset, M. C., Epinat-Duclos, J., Léone, J., & Prado, J. (2021). Effects of Montessori Education on the Academic, Cognitive, and Social Development of Disadvantaged Preschoolers: A Randomized Controlled Study in the French Public-School System. Child Development. DOI: 10.1111/cdev.13575
Culclasure, B., Fleming, D. J., & Riga, G. (2018). An Evaluation of Montessori Education in South Carolina’s Public Schools. The Riley Institute at Furman University.
Lillard, A. S., & Else-Quest, N. (2006). Evaluating Montessori education. Science, 313, 1893-1894. doi.org/10.1126/science.1132362
Lillard, A. S., Heise, M. J., Richey, E. M., Tong, X., Hart, A., & Bray, P. M. (2017). Montessori preschool elevates and equalizes child outcomes: A longitudinal study. Frontiers in Psychology, 8(1783), 1783. doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01783
Lopata, C., Wallace, N. V., & Finn, K. V. (2005). Comparison of academic achievement between Montessori and traditional education programs. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 20(1), 5-13. doi.org/10.1080/02568540509594546
Snyder, A., Tong, X., & Lillard, A. S. (2021). Standardized test performance in public Montessori schools. Journal of School Choice. 10.1080/15582159.2021.1958058
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.