Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Case for Expanding Montessori in Public Schools

The following is an exploration of the viability of Montessori as an option for public school formats: in achievement, in approach, and in transition to other formats. It was submitted as education discourse to Southern Methodist University, at the Simmons College of Education on March 2, 2017 by Johnny Boucher (Jeannot Rene Jonte Boucher), a Montessori primary guide at Eduardo Mata Montessori, a public Montessori in Dallas, Texas.
Advantages of Montessori in the Public Sector
Montessori as a pedagogy originates in Italy in the early-20th century. Following the philosophical design of Dr. Maria Montessori (1870-1952), unifying characteristics of the environments include specialized exploratory materials, student autonomy, and teacher guidance rather than direction. The goals of Montessori include stimulating curiosity, encouraging independence, and following interests. In the context of public schools offering more specialized school options, it is worthwhile to answer community interest in Montessori with data about Montessori as a successful approach. Does Montessori learning positively affects student achievement?

While testing Montessori outcomes empirically is an expanding area for research, it has been a highly desirable and high-tuition pedagogy primarily in the private sector since the early 20th century. Toward evaluating Montessori suitability for private schools, three key consideration comprise an argument for expanding Montessori schools in the public sector: First, public schools would benefit from incorporating more Montessori schools, as Montessori students demonstrated broad gains in all academic and behavioral gains when in these programs for early childhood (Ansari, 2014). Moreover, Montessori methodologies represent an epitomizing form of constructivist education, since the pedagogy values independent inquiry with specialized materials and teacher as guide rather than center of focus (Mallett, 2013). Finally, when Montessori students go on to other formats of learning, Montessori students demonstrate more academic successful than other students, even to high school (Dohrman, 2007). As an aside, when examining conflicting research about the success of the method, evaluators must weigh the purity of the implementation and specific community needs (Chattin-McNichols, 2016). Considering these three considerations, therefore, Montessori pedagogies should inform public decisions for a new direction in public education. Montessori should be a high consideration in any development of school learning innovations and personalized learning formats.   
Gains in Broad Domains
Previous research into the benefits of Montessori early childhood preparations examined differences in success between conventional and Montessori programs. Some initial inquiry has been made controlling for socio-economic status, but no other research has yet been published monitoring gains between demographics of at-risk groups. The significance of controlling for SES lies in the general affluence of private Montessori populations. Ansari’s study of Miami School Readiness examined the gains of low-income Latino and Black children enrolled in two different types of Title-1 public schools. The schools are either Montessori or conventional programs. Results from 15,000 students revealed early childhood programs with Montessori supported broad gains against all academic, socio-emotional, and behavioral domains. This is a strong indication that Montessori could be preferable as a foundation for many populations.

It is worth noting that all children did not benefit equally in Montessori programs. Latino children began more at-risk yet grew above national averages. Black children exhibited strong gains but slightly greater gains in conventional programs. Initial hypotheses related to the home language’s interactions with the effects of Montessori individuation. As the  largest study regarding Montessori pedagogy. the difference in the success between different minority groups in Montessori is surprising. Researchers suggested that the difference in success implies the need for openings of schools to be sensitive to the background of the population. In areas where students are acquiring English, Montessori may be more valuable, due to possible connection between Montessori and dominantly Latino bilingual campuses. The whole-child value of Montessori shows in the success across all academic, socio-emotional, and behavioral domains. However, it is additionally successful with Latino populations of language-learners in educational settings. As dual language campuses remain another trend in school innovation, the racial disparity in results could be an indication that Montessori could be an especially valuable overlay with dual language programming.
Constructivist Learning Leading to Academic Achievement
Mallett noted that across the span of elementary public school format possibilities, the United States employs numerous educational representations of early childhood education. The constructivist approach to early childhood education is illustrative of best practices based on current theory. Though the Montessori Method is aligned with research-based best practices espoused by constructivism, there are relatively few public Montessori schools currently in the United States. Mallett provided a direct comparison between the academic outcomes of public elementary school programs which implement the Montessori Method and those which implement a more traditional approach to early childhood education. The focus of this study is the academic achievement outcomes of Montessori public school students as compared to similar non-Montessori students. The findings indicate that Montessori students make gains over time, surpassing peers. While the gains Mallett found were small in effect size, she observed gains in all domains.
This might be attributed to the findings of Pate (2014), who observed physical activity in preschool children, comparing  Montessori and traditional preschools. As movement drives the child’s construction of learning, children attending Montessori preschools were more active than children attending traditional preschools. Adopting the Montessori system may be an important strategy for promoting physical activity as a support for learning in children. In another manner of speaking, when young children move while learning, engagement and retention of learning is generally higher. Also, Montessori multi-sensory approach to learning format is a key characteristic of the method, for example, in the large sandpaper letters for tactile tracing, instead of handwriting worksheets.

Although it is not directly discussed in Pate’s research on higher degrees of concentrated movement in Montessori classrooms, the greater movement can contribute to higher quality of life for children. Pate’s researchers monitored 301 children in 9 Montessori and 8 traditional preschools in Columbia, South Carolina. In detail, physical activity was measured by accelerometers attached to children on weekdays during preschool (In-School), non-school (Non-School), and all day (All Day). With implications for obesity, attention, and behavior, the findings also suggest a higher quality of life for students who engage in so much concentrated movement, as part of their learning. The multi-sensory constructivist approach invites further possibilities for research in Montessori methods for use in remediation of special needs such as ADHD, autism, dyslexia, and low-vision and hearing impaired environments.
Lasting Gains
Dohrman studied how students would go on to perform after having attended public Montessori programs. The formats of class rhythm can vary significantly from traditional classrooms, in that the teacher is understood as a “guide on the side” rather than a “sage on the stage”. Most presentations are given as 1-1 or small group, and students explore presented materials and activities in uninterrupted work cycles of at least three hours. With the qualification that Dohrman’s research represents the experience of a single school system, this study indicates that a program such as Montessori, with a rigorous set of principles and practices, can be implemented by a major urban school system with a high degree of fidelity to these standards. Furthermore, Montessori schools and can achieve equal or better outcomes than are achieved by a conglomerate of other school programs. It is a common concern that concern that Montessori programs ill-prepare students for the competitive environments they face in high school. As a major difference between single-grade classrooms, Montessori programs deemphasize competition between peers intentionally, through multi-age environments where individual differences in ability add to “social cohesion”, or community feeling. Dohrman’s results provide compelling evidence that Montessori students go on to be highly successful in other spaces. Despite having spent the first five years of elementary school in a classic Montessori school environment, without tests, grades, homework, or standard lectures, the Montessori students were doing as well or better than the control group that presumably had those traditional features.

Now, for an opposing study, the research of Hsin-Hiu P & Sham’ah M. (2014) suggested Montessori students did not perform as well. They examined whether children in Montessori schools perform better in the achievement tests, from a Taiwanese perspective. Montessori is promoted as an international teaching method, with the headquarters in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Annual conferences of Montessori-credentialed educators meet in various continents around the globe. The findings suggest but there is a need for sensitivity in observing that results have been different in varying populations, perhaps because of unknown cultural factors. The study examined 196 children in first, second, and third grade. They were evaluated based on their scores in the Elementary School Language Ability Achievement Tests and the corollary exam for math. Students who had Montessori experience had a significantly higher score in language arts in all three grade levels. In math, first grade students scored higher but not second and third grade students. However, in social studies, students who had received Montessori education did not score significantly higher than the non-Montessori students. There was also no significant difference between the number of years spent in Montessori programs and students’ language arts, math, and social studies test scores in first, second, and third grade. In expanding access, as discussed previously, it will be a concern to maintain awareness of possible conflicts in the culture. Yet, even considering the lackluster success of the Montessori group in Hsin-Hiu’s appraisal of Montessori success, it is important to observe that the Dohrman study also found little differences between students who had received Montessori preparation in early elementary, but the differences in independence and self-regulations showed more clearly by high school. Therefore, it is possible that the children in Hsin-Hiu’s research would have demonstrated more advanced gains at a later check-point. Additionally, approaches to Montessori must vary to degrees by culture because of the adaptability of the pedagogy to local character; Montessori literacy given in England would differ from Montessori environments in Italy, because the complexity of English orthography will require greater emphasis on literacy games bringing out, for example, variations on vowel digraphs. Confounding results invite more research into the nuance of lasting gains in Montessori, by culture.
The Importance of Evaluating Montessori with Controls
In the public sector particularly, it will be important to deescalate the emphasis on high-stakes testing to implement Montessori with fidelity. There is tension between district and campus requirements to demonstrate success principally with test scores and the whole-child perspective of psychological wellness in the child leading to achievement. Metrics which evaluate Montessori success should consider the social-emotional outcomes and executive function gains—not just test scores. Implementation must be guarded for purity and support; materials are more expensive, staff are less readily available, and parents require education about the approach.

Montessori is still quite rare in the public sector. Out of the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector’s 4000+ list of Montessori schools in the USA, NCMPS maintains a list of only 500 public Montessori schools. Since the origins of the method come from Dr. Montessori’s work with disadvantaged children in 1907 in Italy, this leaves many wondering how best to deliver Montessori to public schools and disadvantaged populations. Chattin-McNichols provided an ethnographic, qualitative summary of difficulties observed in Montessori schools, or uniquely challenging to public Montessori schools. Most germane to expanding Montessori will be the discussion of whether the method is more successful. In weighing at-times conflicting research, Chattin-McNichols reminded evaluators of the large number of schools set up as “Montessori and…” another method and questioned how those needs could be met by exclusive Montessori. Beyond discouraging an overlay of another program, fidelity to the classic Montessori model has an impact on success. Finally, high-stakes testing remains a threat and interruption to the prepared Montessori environment. Districts must commit to minimal disruption of Montessori and to establishing campus permissions to deviate from other district testing models, schedules, and miscellaneous requirements. Administration will need to be well-educated in granting autonomy to Montessori spaces from many of the common practices associated with conventional, high-stakes testing environments. Maintaining purity in classic Montessori offerings will conserve resources and generate results more similar to the high-achieving studies.
As a result of gains in all domains in early childhood, constructivist learning and academic achievement, and the lasting gains of Montessori background, Montessori is a measurably strong alternative to traditional, conventional education methods. Furthermore, intangibles such as the role of the teacher as guide and the student as the constructor of their own learning contributes to student happiness in such environments. In giving communities more choice in the style of education offered to parents, this leads to more community engagement and public school satisfaction. With consideration given to individual population, Montessori should be considered a valid school option within the public sector, in new school planning.

Ansari, A., & Winsler, A. (2014). Montessori public school pre-K programs and the school readiness of low-income Black and Latino children. Journal of Educational Psychology, 106(4), 1076-1079.

Blank, J. (2009). Situated in school scripts: Contextual early childhood teaching. Teaching and Teacher Education, 25(2), 251-258.

Chattin-McNichols, J. (2016). The Hard Work of Public Montessori. Montessori Life, 28(3), 34-43.

Dohrman, K., Nishida, T., et al. (2007). High school outcomes for students in a public Montessori program. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 22.2(Winter 2007), 205

Hsin-Hiu P., Sham’ah M. (2014). Do children in Montessori schools perform better in the achievement test? A Taiwanese perspective. International Journal of Early Childhood, 46(2), 299-311.

Pate, R. (2014). Physical activity in preschool children: Comparison between Montessori and traditional preschools. The Journal of School Health, 84(11), 716-721.

Zieher, A. K., & Armstrong, J. (2016). Teaching in a public Montessori school: contexts, quandaries, and thinking schemes. Person-Centered & Experimental Psychotherapies, 15 (1), 37-54.

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