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New research from the University of Virginia has found that a Montessori preschool education helps typically under-performing low-income students keep pace with their higher-income peers.
In a study just published in the open-access journal Frontiers in Psychology, psychology professor Angeline Lillard and her colleagues studied children who were admitted by lottery to public Montessori schools in Hartford, Connecticut, or were wait-listed and attended public and private schools that did not use Montessori programs.
“We had 71 children in the control group and 70 children in the Montessori group, most of whom were tested at four time periods longitudinally, starting the first semester that they entered the preschool,” Lillard said.
The researchers tested the children in a variety of areas, including reading, math, social cognition, persistence and self-regulation. The testing occurred over a three-year period, from the ages 3 to 6.
Lillard said the results showed all the children scored equally that first fall. As time went on, their scores diverged.
“If you look at what happened with low-income control children in non-Montessori schools, relative to the other children, they start low and get lower, doing worse over time,” she said. “If you look at the low-income Montessori children, they are on the upswing, so that by the fourth evaluation, they are not significantly different from the control high-income sample or the Montessori high-income sample.”
She added that their trajectory was such that had there been a fifth evaluation, the low-income Montessori students would be truly (not just statistically) equal to their high-income counterparts.
The study also found that children in Montessori schools did better overall than children in conventional schools.
The Montessori method of teaching aims to develop both social and academic abilities in children. In Montessori classrooms, children can move around freely and choose from a range of educational activities. Each classroom includes children of a variety of ages and there are no grades or rewards for performance.
Lillard said the new findings are important. “We have persistently failed to figure out a way to help people who are born into poverty more reliably get out of that situation. Education is widely heralded as the best possible way, and yet our conventional school systems don’t seem to be a lot of help,” she said.
“You see the cycle of poverty over and over again,” Lillard added. “People who are born into it, stay in it; if we could find a different way to school children that could make a difference, we might be able to make some headway on this age-old problem.”
She suggested that the reasons the Montessori system has these effects are complex, but likely stem from it corresponding to the ways people naturally learn and develop. Conventional schooling is a fairly recent invention, whereas “informal” learning has always existed in every society. Higher-income children are enculturated into the mores of conventional schooling at home (although even they do somewhat better in Montessori), but lower-income children get left behind in most schools, she said.
Children in Montessori preschools show improved academic performance and social understanding, while enjoying their school work more, finds the first longitudinal study of Montessori education outcomes. Strikingly, children from low-income families, who typically don't perform as well at school, show similar academic performance as children from high-income families. Children with low executive function similarly benefit from Montessori preschools. The study, published in Frontiers in Psychology, suggests that well-implemented Montessori education could be a powerful way to help disadvantaged children to achieve their academic potential.
"The study is relevant for parents choosing what schools to enroll their children in, and for school districts in deciding what kinds of schools to offer," says one of the study's authors, Angeline Lillard, of the University of Virginia, USA.
Good preschool education is crucially important. During the first six years of life, children's brains develop significantly, and many of these changes can be permanent. Ensuring that children get a good head start could help them for the rest of their lives.
Previous research suggests that the Montessori method -- which aims to develop both social and academic abilities in children -- is a promising educational approach. Unlike conventional schools, children in Montessori classrooms can move around freely, choose from a range of educational activities, and receive no grades or rewards for performance. However, there is an overall lack of knowledge about how effective the Montessori method is, and how it compares with conventional education.
Lillard and her colleagues compared educational outcomes for a large group of children in Montessori preschools or conventional preschools in Connecticut, USA. The research team carried out a variety of assessments with the children over a three-year period, from when they were aged three until they were aged six.
"We found that children in Montessori schools did better overall than children in conventional schools," says Lillard. "The greater gains in academic achievement for Montessori children were accompanied by greater gains in social understanding, stronger persistence on challenging tasks, and more enjoyment of academic tasks."
The researchers also looked at children from two groups that typically do not perform as well at school: those from poorer backgrounds and those with lower executive function -- a measurement of skills that allow someone to control their behavior to achieve a goal.
Strikingly, the Montessori preschools significantly helped low-income children to perform as well as wealthier children academically. Statistically, after 3 years in the preschool programs, low-income Montessori children performed as well as high-income children in both Montessori preschools and conventional preschools.
Similarly, the team found that children with lower executive function were not at a disadvantage in Montessori schools, and performed as well as those with higher executive function. These findings are in stark contrast with what the researchers found in conventional schools, where low-income children, and those with lower executive function, performed worse than their peers.
The team plans to investigate whether all Montessori schools are as beneficial, or if only high-quality Montessori produces these effects. Another possibility is that Montessori schools attract better teachers. Future work will look at how Montessori teacher training programs affect educational outcomes.
"Montessori education started with very poor children in a housing project in Rome, over 100 years ago," says Lillard. "However, several of today's most prominent entrepreneurs went to, and have publicly spoken about the influence of, Montessori schools."