Montessori Learning Aid: Alternative school shows impact on poor children

A century ago, Italian physician Maria Montessori started an innovative school for children 4 to 7 years old in a destitute section of Rome. A new study, focusing on poor and lower-middle-class children from Milwaukee, now provides the best evidence to date that Montessori’s unique educational approach, at least when strictly applied, yields academic and social advances superior to those produced by other schools.

EDUCATED TOUCH. Montessori education, exemplified by these children exploring a letter on sandpaper, conferred academic and social advantages on a group of Milwaukee youngsters. A. Vu

By the end of kindergarten, Montessori children outperformed their peers at public and private schools on standardized math and reading tests, say Angeline Lillard of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and Nicole Else-Quest of the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Montessori kids also did better at controlling their attention during novel tasks, solving social problems, and playing cooperatively.

At the end of elementary school, 12-year-old Montessori children wrote essays with greater creativity and more complexity in sentence structure than their peers at other schools did, the two psychologists report in the Sept. 29 Science. Montessori youngsters also exhibited superior social skills and reported an unusually strong sense of community at their school. Non-Montessori students largely caught up to the Montessori group on math and reading tests by age 12.

“Researchers should take a closer look at the Montessori system as one way to improve education in the United States,” Lillard says.

Strictly implemented Montessori education uses special educational materials and classroom workstations. Classes include children of different ages who choose activities to work on for long periods of time under a teacher’s direction. Classroom activities, which are often collaborative, emphasize increasingly complex projects related to counting or other topics. The Montessori approach eschews textbook learning, grades, formal evaluations, and daily recess.

Lillard and Else-Quest contacted parents who had entered a lottery to gain their children’s admission to a Montessori school in Milwaukee. Annual incomes for families, most of which were black, ranged from $20,000 to $50,000. Lottery winners and losers were studied at ages 5 and 12 years, times coinciding with late stages of two main periods of Montessori education: one for children 3 to 6 years old and another for students 6 to 12 years old.

The group of 5-year-olds included 30 Montessori children and 25 youngsters attending public, private, or charter schools. The group of 12-year-olds consisted of 29 Montessori students and 28 youngsters attending the other schools. Many of the non-Montessori schools had enacted special academic and arts programs and had resources equal to those of the Montessori school.

By studying only lottery applicants with similar family backgrounds, the researchers attempted to rule out the possibility that parents of Montessori children provided better learning environments at home than other parents did.

Lillard says that she’d like to see further research that tracks lottery winners and losers throughout their school years and explores how well children do at different Montessori schools, which vary widely in adherence to Montessori principles. Moreover, she says, it’s unclear whether a certain component of Montessori education or the whole package stimulates learning.

More than 5,000 U.S. schools classify themselves as Montessori schools.

Alternative-education programs aside from Montessori also deserve closer scrutiny, remarks psychologist Carolyn P. Edwards of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Well-trained teachers, coherent sets of activities for specific topics, and other features common to such programs may confer particularly large learning benefits, she suggests.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.