Montessori preschool vs. business-as-usual

Although researchers have yet to render the definitive verdict on preschool as the possible key to Kindergarten readiness, better K–12 outcomes, and life success for children, more findings are being added to the pool every month. One case in point is a new longitudinal study that examines academic and socioemotional outcomes for students participating in a Montessori preschool.

For those not familiar with the method, the American Montessori Society’s list of attributes reads: “Multiage groupings that foster peer learning, uninterrupted blocks of work time, and guided choice of work activity. In addition, a full complement of specially designed Montessori learning materials are meticulously arranged and available for use in an aesthetically pleasing environment.”

For the purposes of the present study, Montessori was chosen as an alternative to what the researchers define as default or “business-as-usual” versions of preschool: “teacher-led and didactic or else…lack[ing] academic content.”

Angeline Lillard and her research team used lottery-based Montessori magnet schools in Hartford, Connecticut, to create treatment and control groups. The treatment group comprised seventy students who won the lottery to attend one of two public Montessori schools; the control group consisted of seventy-one students who lost the same lottery and attended a variety of non-Montessori public magnet, traditional public, and private schools over the study period from age three through six.

The study measured students’ academic achievement, theory of mind (the ability to attribute mental states to oneself and others and to understand that others’ mental states can be different from one's own), social competence, executive function (via two different tasks), mastery orientation (whether a child is a “persister” at a difficult task or will settle for another, easier task), relative enjoyment of school (as compared to relative enjoyment of more obviously “fun” activities), and creativity (via Guilford’s Alternative Uses task). All students were assessed on all components at four points in time over the three years—once in the first semester after starting school, and again at the end of years one, two, and three of the study.

As might be expected, healthy and growing children advanced in all measured areas. In the areas of social competence, executive function, and creativity, there was little to no overall variation among Montessori students versus “business-as-usual” students. Kids will be kids, perhaps? Montessori students, however, were more likely to exhibit a mastery orientation by the end of their preschool years and to express more enjoyment of school than their business-as-usual peers.

But let’s not beat around the bush: Despite the researchers’ assertion that Montessori education carries no extrinsic rewards and is therefore different than “business-as-usual” preschool, Montessori students did far better on the academic achievement measure than their control group peers. Controlling for variables such as household income and initial executive function level isolated the effect of the Montessori “treatment” as most predictive of academic growth than any other variable. More importantly, income-based achievement gaps were much smaller for Montessori students than for control group students.

By the final measurement point in the study, lower-income Montessori students were far outpacing their lower-income control group peers. The same pattern held true for gaps in executive function: Students with lower executive function at the outset were faring far better academically than were comparable control group students by the final measurement point. Bottom line: two pernicious sources of academic achievement gaps seen in older children—household income and student executive function level—were seen to be ameliorated by the Montessori preschool as studied here. Seems like a big deal worthy of further study.

As for why Montessori preschool have such positive effects, researchers cite specialized materials, multi-age classrooms, the multi-sensory approach to math and English language arts, specialized teaching skills, student-centered activities, and encouragement of activity repetition. But this is just speculation. Variations between Montessori and “business-as-usual” preschools are numerous and would require larger and more focused studies before any answer could be confirmed.

It is important to note, however, that whatever boost Montessori preschools do provide could easily fade out once students move into K–12 schooling if elementary schools are not of the same rigor.

SOURCE: Angeline S. Lillard, et al,Montessori Preschool Elevates and Equalizes Child Outcomes: A Longitudinal Study”, Frontiers in Psychology (October, 2017).

Jeff Murray
Jeff Murray is the Ohio Operations Manager of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute,