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Journal of Research in Childhood Education Copyright 2005 by the Association for

2005, Vol. 20, No. 1 Childhood Education International


0256-8543/05

Comparison of Academic Achievement Between


Montessori and Traditional Education Programs

Christopher Lopata
University at Buffalo, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY
Nancy V. Wallace
Kristin V. Finn
Canisius College, Buffalo, NY

Abstract. The purpose of this study was to compare the academic achievement of
543 urban 4th- (n=291) and 8th- (n=252) grade students who attended Montes-
sori or traditional education programs. The majority of the sample consisted of
minority students (approximately 53 percent), and was considered low income
(approximately 67 percent). Students who attended a public Montessori school
were compared with students who attended structured magnet, open magnet, and
traditional non-magnet public schools on standardized measures of math and
language arts. Results of the study failed to support the hypothesis that enroll-
ment in a Montessori school was associated with higher academic achievement.
Implications and suggestions for future research are provided.

Maria Montessori developed the first Mon- and early childhood and child care centers
tessori school in 1907 to serve children (Haines, 1995). At present, there is an es-
who were economically disadvantaged, as timated 4,000 private Montessori programs
well as children with mental retardation and more than 200 Montessori-styled public
(Pickering, 1992). Her work included de- schools serving students from infancy to 8th
velopment of specific educational methods grade (North American Montessori Teach-
and materials based on her belief about ers’ Association, 2003).
how children learn. Although Montessori According to Ryniker and Shoho (2001),
programs have historically ended at age 6, the Montessori approach is based on the
elementary Montessori programs became tenet that children learn most effectively
more prevalent in the 1990s, with middle when information is developmentally ap-
and secondary programs slowly emerging propriate. Central to this approach is the
(Seldin, 2002-03). The Montessori move- notion that children’s natural tendencies
ment received a boost when federal fund- “unfold” in specially designed multi-age
ing was released for magnet programs environments that contain manipulative
that allowed public funding for Montessori self-correcting materials (North American
programs (Chattin-McNichols, 1992). Mon- Montessori Teachers’ Association, 2003).
tessori programs are currently found in Montessori reportedly identified genetically
a variety of settings, including inner-city programmed “sensitive periods” in which
and affluent areas, large urban magnet children have exaggerated capacity and
programs, preschools for children at risk, eagerness to acquire skills and information

Lopata, wallace, and finn

(Crain, 1992). Because each child’s devel- Furthermore, Montessori is distinct in


opment is different, the individual child that it does not use textbooks, worksheets,
is allowed to choose activities, “trusting tests, grades, punishments, or rewards
the child’s sensitive periods will guide him (Haines, 1995). Differences in classroom
to choose the work for which he is ready” attitudes and management also have been
(Pickering, 1992, p. 92). noted. According to Chattin-McNichols
In this approach, children learn at their (1992), Montessori classrooms are based on
own pace through manipulation of objects. cooperation, while traditional classrooms
As such, personal independence, self-dis- are based on competition. In Montessori
cipline, and initiative are essential for classrooms, “Teachers promote inner disci-
learning and motivation, with motivation pline in children by letting students direct
purportedly fostered through interactions their own learning instead of upholding
in the environment (Kendall, 1993). Har- an outer discipline where teachers act as
ris and Callender (1995) contend that the authoritarians, dictating to students how
emphasis on these aspects leads to “inner to behave and what to do” (Harris & Cal-
discipline.” In the Montessori approach, lender, 1995, p. 134). Montessori teachers
teachers do not “direct learning,” but reportedly have “faith that the children will
respect the children’s efforts toward inde- freely choose the tasks that meet their inner
pendent mastery (Crain, 1992). Instruc- needs at the moment” (Crain, 1992, p. 65).
tion is based largely on sensory materials In addition, Montessori programs target the
developed by Montessori (Ryniker & Shoho, development of “human potential … beyond
2001). the more narrow focus of skill development
Montessori and traditional education pro- and transmission of societal values which
grams reportedly differ in several ways, in- shape the traditional educational system”
cluding physical environment, instructional (Kendall, 1993, p. 65).
methodology, and classroom attitude. For Another important characteristic of the
example, Montessori classrooms employ an Montessori approach is the practitioner’s
open-concept in which desks are arranged assertion that the approach produces su-
in “rafts” to promote individual and small- perior academic achievement outcomes
group learning and students’ age range (e.g., Daux, 1995; Dawson, 1987; Takacs,
across a three years, whereas traditional 1993 cited in Seldin 2002/03). Despite
classrooms have desks oriented in one direc- this contention, quantitative evidence to
tion for whole-group instruction and consist support the claim is limited. For example,
of same grade students (Chattin-McNichols, Daux (1995) followed the performance of
1992). In Montessori classrooms, students 36 “broadly middle-class” students from
typically spend three to four hours per day a private Montessori school from 2nd
in self-selected individual and small-group through 8th grade on annual standardized
work and spend less than one hour per achievement testing. The students’ initial
day in whole-group instruction (Baines & 2nd-grade testing indicated that the group
Snortum, 1973). This is in contrast to tra- was above average when the study began.
ditional classrooms where students follow Gains exceeding the pretest were reported
teacher-directed work (Chattin-McNichols, in the areas of total reading and total math
1992). In addition, traditional education against the national norm. Despite the
programs have been identified as placing lack of reported statistical analyses in the
greater emphasis on dispensing and deliver- article, Daux (1995) claimed that the results
ing information (Ryniker & Shoho, 2001). provide “quantitative evidence that Montes-
Instructionally, Montessori programs sori schools produce greater than expected
use manipulative materials designed by academic achievement in students” (p. 147).
Montessori as an instructional methodol- Substantial methodological limitations,
ogy, whereas traditional classrooms use including the lack of a comparison group,
materials as teacher presentation aids. absence of appropriate tests of significance,

COMPARING MONTESSORI AND TRADITIONAL EDUCATION

and numerous potential threats to internal students. No statistically significant


validity, call into question these assertions differences on math and reading achieve-
and conclusions. ment scores (Comprehensive Tests of Basic
Other examples of commonly cited stud- Skills) were found between students who
ies that examined the efficacy of Montes- attended Montessori versus other preschool
sori programs include studies by Glenn programs. Although the researchers noted
(1996) and Dawson (1987). Glenn (1996) higher performance for male students who
conducted a 10-year longitudinal follow-up attended Montessori programs, the higher
study of Montessori students on measures scores paralleled student IQ scores. Such
of academic achievement, as well as such a finding does not allow achievement dif-
personality characteristics as self-control, ferences to be attributed to instructional
self-direction, spontaneity, and creativ- programming (i.e., Montessori preschool).
ity. Results indicated that students who Beyond these studies, proponents have
attended Montessori programs were “as made additional assertions regarding the
successful as the general public” and that effectiveness of Montessori programs. For
years in a Montessori program were not example, Pickering (1992) contended that
related to personality characteristics. Montessori programs help students de-
The study by Dawson (1987) examined velop attention, organization/order, visual
mean grade equivalent scores on the Iowa and auditory perception, written language
Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) and the Metro- skills, fine and gross motor skills, math-
politan Achievement Test (MAT) for minor- ematic skills, and personality. However,
ity Montessori students in grades 1 through there is a lack of empirical support for
5 against national norms. Results of the de- Pickering’s (1992) assertions regarding
scriptive comparison indicated higher mean the areas positively affected, or the claim
grade equivalents for minority students in that Montessori materials have been “sci-
the Montessori program as compared to entifically” validated. Some of the lack
national norms. Dawson also compared of evidence may be due to Montessorians’
Montessori ITBS and MAT test scores view that standardized tests provide little
against matched “conventional schools” information on student progress and do not
(matched on ethnicity) in the district for assess the skills and attributes promoted
grades 1 through 4. Results indicated that in Montessori programs (Haines, 1995).
Montessori scores were significantly higher As a result, it was not until recently that
on nearly all grade level comparisons. Montessorians encountered pressure to col-
Although Dawson was able to discount lect research data (Seldin, 2002/03). “Even
screening as a potential confound due to though Montessorians may be averse to the
the program being non-selective (admis- notion of evaluation, they will need to show
sion based on date of application), no data results–quantifiable measures of student
was provided on pre-programming levels to learning” (Haines, 1995, p. 118).
indicate whether the groups differed prior Substantial methodological f laws in
to enrollment in the Montessori program. the existing literature suggest that more
In addition, no statistical control proce- controlled empirical research is necessary.
dures were applied to control for potential Studies such as those previously described
demographic confounds such as gender and highlight a range of problems, such as a lack
economic status. Lastly, Dawson noted that of comparison groups, statistical controls,
parental selection “could not be ruled out” and empirical testing for group compari-
as a rival explanation. sons. In a review of the literature, Seldin
Miller and Bizzell (1984) examined the (2002/03) claimed that much of the existing
long-term effect of Montessori preschool research has been inconclusive or contained
programs, as well as other preschool pro- severe methodological flaws, and is limited
grams on the 9th- and 10th-grade perfor- in terms of age range. Additionally, little
mance of low-income African American research has been conducted with elemen-

Lopata, wallace, and finn

tary and latency age children (Glenn, classrooms using Montessori instructional
1996; Kendall, 1993). To overcome these materials. The role of the teacher was de-
weaknesses, the current study empirically scribed as one of observer and facilitator
tested whether students in a Montessori in student learning. This child-centered
school outperformed non-Montessori stu- approach emphasized the “total develop-
dents using standardized measures of math ment of the child,” and learning over work
and language arts. Specifically, 4th- and products. Specifically, the school focused
8th-grade students who attended a Mon- on the process of learning instead of work
tessori school were compared to matched- output. Behavioral reinforcement and/or
samples of students in structured magnet, consequences were not employed to man-
open magnet, and traditional non-magnet age student behaviors. The stated goal of
schools in a large urban district. the Montessori school was development of
strong self-directed young adults who pursue
Method a lifetime love of independently learning.
Sample Two separate non-selective magnet
The sample for the current study consisted schools (i.e., no admissions requirements/
of 543 4th- and 8th-grade students (i.e., tests) were chosen for comparison to reduce
291 4th-graders and 252 8th-graders) in a the potential confound of parental selec-
large urban district in western New York. tion and choice. The magnet programs
Four public schools were selected for par- required parental selection and enrollment
ticipation: Montessori, Open Magnet (OM), procedures that paralleled those of the
Structured Magnet (SM), and Traditional Montessori school. Specifically, parents
Non-Magnet (TNM) schools. Schools were had contacted the district’s magnet office
selected based on grossly similar school and identified three possible magnet schools
profiles provided by the New York State of interest. Student placement was deter-
Education Department. To control for mined by lottery.
demographic differences between school The Structured Magnet (SM) school
types, schools were matched on gender, emphasized back-to-basics curricular con-
ethnicity, and socio-economic status (SES). tent, driven by New York State standards.
SES was determined using the federal Instruction was described as teacher-
formula for free and reduced lunch. Based directed, with drill-and-practice used to
on the formula, students were categorized develop skills and curricular proficiency.
by the district as “low income” or “not low Instructional materials regularly included
income.” Overall, approximately 67 percent textbooks, workbooks, and worksheets, and
of the total sample was identified as low students completed assigned work at their
income (i.e., 69 percent of grade 4 and 64 desks. There was also a strong school-
percent of grade 8). White students con- wide emphasis on structured classrooms
stituted approximately 47 percent of the and discipline, including consequences for
sample, with African American, Hispanic, modifying inappropriate behavior.
and Other students comprising the category The school described as an Open Magnet
of “Minority.” Demographic characteristics (OM) had large community spaces and
are presented in Table 1. shared open areas characteristic of “open
Schools selected for comparison with education” concepts. The open environ-
Montessori were chosen based on salient ment allowed for team-teaching, as well as
differences in instructional environment. small-group and individual instruction in
A brief description of each school’s orienta- multi-age groups that reportedly fostered
tion is provided. The Montessori school students’ sense of interdependence and re-
provided curricular content through a pre- sponsibility. The instructional approach of
pared learning environment that meets the the school was identified as exploratory and
needs and interests of children in multi-age discovery-oriented, with units designed to


COMPARING MONTESSORI AND TRADITIONAL EDUCATION

be thematic. Schedules and routines were mathematics concepts (e.g., isolated compu-
described as flexible. Discipline relied tations and operations).
on naturalistic social opportunities, and
school meetings to identify conflict resolu- Language Arts Achievement. The New
tion approaches. York State English/Language Arts exam,
The 4th school was identified as a Tra- conducted at the 4th- and 8th-grade levels,
ditional Non-Magnet (TNM). Students was designed to parallel the New York
enrolled in the TNM attended that school State Learning Standards and provides a
based on proximity to home, with no pa- comprehensive assessment of language arts
rental selection. The TNM emphasized achievement. The 4th-grade exam assessed
basic curricular standards to improve test the areas of reading, listening/writing, and
scores. Instruction was based on structured reading/writing, and the 8th-grade exam
direct instruction, including an emphasis assessed reading, reading/writing, listen-
on drill-and-practice using textbooks and ing/writing, and independent writing (New
worksheets. Students performed seatwork York State Education Department, 2004b).
at their desks and were expected to adhere Examples of language arts skills assessed
to a strict code of discipline. The struc- at the 4th-grade level included drawing in-
tured school environment included the use ferences and conclusions, identifying main
of behavioral consequences for modifying ideas and supporting details, locating infor-
inappropriate behavior. mation to solve a problem, and knowledge of
story structure and elements. At the 8th-
Instruments grade level, examples of skills included us-
Academic achievement was assessed using ing text to understand vocabulary, drawing
4th- and 8th-grade math and language conclusions to make inferences, interpreting
arts scores from two separate standardized characters, settings, and themes, comparing
measures: the New York State Mathematics and contrasting information, determining
and English/Language Arts (ELA) exams, the meaning of literary devices, and recog-
and the Math and Language Arts portions nizing points of view.
of the TerraNova (McGraw Hill, 2002). The TerraNova (McGraw-Hill, 2002)
Mathematics Achievement. The con- also was used to assess language arts
tent of the New York State Mathematics achievement. The skill areas assessed
Exam was designed to parallel the New were identified as language (e.g., ability
York State Learning Standards. Both to understand the structure of words, how
the 4th- and 8th-grade exams assess the words are connected to form sentences, how
general mathematical areas of procedural sentences and paragraphs are connected to
knowledge, conceptual understanding, and convey ideas, and language conventions)
problem solving. Specific subtests include and language mechanics (e.g., editing and
mathematical reasoning, number and nu- proofreading).
meration, operations, modeling/multiple
representations, measurement, uncertain- Procedures
ty (i.e., estimation), and patterns/functions Data for the present study were provided
(New York State Education Department, by the school district. Achievement test
2004a). data were compiled as part of each school’s
The Mathematics portion of the Ter- annual evaluation of students. Data re-
raNova (McGraw-Hill, 2002) also was cords were provided to the researchers
used to assess mathematics achievement anonymously, using only district assigned
at the 4th- and 8th-grade levels. The two numbers and no personally identifying
primary areas assessed were identified as information. Data were then analyzed
mathematics (e.g., estimation, number and to evaluate the academic performance of
number sense, numeration, number theory, Montessori students compared to students
data interpretation, and measurement) and in magnet and non-magnet schools.

Lopata, wallace, and finn

Results characteristics (gender, ethnicity, and SES)


At each grade level, a multivariate analy- were used as covariates in all analyses.
sis of covariance (MANCOVA) tested the
hypotheses that students in the Montes- Covariate Results
sori school had higher language arts and Correlations among the measures are
mathematics achievement than students presented in Table 2. The relationship
in magnet and traditional non-magnet between language arts and mathematics
schools. Planned contrasts were performed was fairly strong for both grade 4 (r=.65)
between the four school types at each and grade 8 (r=.64). Gender was not sig-
grade level. Montessori was compared to nificantly related to mathematics achieve-
Structured Magnet (SM), Open Magnet ment at either grade level, but was related
(OM), and Traditional Non-Magnet (TNM) to language arts achievement. Female
schools on language arts and mathematics students had higher language arts scores
achievement. To control for demographic than male students in both grades four and
differences between students, demographic eight. Ethnicity and SES were significantly

Table 1
Demographic Characteristics of the Study Sample (n = number of students)

Grade 4 MEP SM OM TNM Total

Gender
Male 30 33 53 50 166
Female 19 22 45 39 125
Race
White 21 23 41 50 135
Minority 28 32 57 39 156
Low Income
Yes 31 0 63 70 203
No 18 15 36 19 88

Grade 8
Gender
Male 15 26 34 46 121
Female 24 33 43 31 131
Race 16 21 30 51 118
White 16 21 30 51 118
Minority 23 38 47 26 134
Low Income
Yes 21 31 51 59 162
No 18 28 26 18 90


COMPARING MONTESSORI AND TRADITIONAL EDUCATION

related to both outcome measures. Minority Grade 4 Results


and low-income students had significantly Results of the overall tests of significance
lower mathematics and language arts for grades 4 and 8 are summarized in
achievement than White students and those Table 3. A significant multivariate main
not identified as low-income, respectively. effect of school type was found at grade 4
These relationships were consistent for (F (6,546)=7.35, p<.001). Univariate tests of
both grade levels. The multivariate tests significance showed differences among the
of significance showed that the set of three four school types for both language arts (F
covariates was significantly related to (3,274)=2.53, p<.05) and mathematics out-
the achievement measures at grade 4 (F comes (F (3,274)=14.55, p <.001). Planned
(6, 546)=19.0, p<.001) and grade 8 (F (6, contrasts between school types tested the
476)=13.9, p < .001). specific hypotheses that students attend-

Table 2
Correlations Among Study Variables
Variable Gendera Low Incomeb Language Math Racec

Gendera 1.00 0.11 0.14* 0.001 -.003


Low Income b
0.02 1.00 -.33 ** -.37 ** 0.31 **
Language 0.18 * -.32 ** 1.00 0.64 ** -.38 **
Math -.06 -.27 ** 0.65 ** 1.00 -.36 **
Race c
0.06 0.31 ** -.36 ** -.44 ** 1.00

Note. Correlations for grade 4 variables appear below the diagonal. Correlations for Grade 8
variables appear above the diagonal.
a 1=male; 2=female. b 1=no; 2=yes. c 1=white; 2=minority. * p<.05; ** p<.001

Table 3
Summary of Multivariate and Univariate Contrasts

Multivariate Univariate
Language Mathematics
Grade 4 F Effect Size a
T Effect Size T Effect Size
SM–MEP 1.41 0.34 -.54 -0.11 -1.60 -0.32
OM–MEP 5.97 ** 0.62 -1.32 -0.24 -3.35 ** -0.60
TNM–MEP 2.10 0.38 .93 0.17 2.02 * 0.37

Grade 8
SM – MEP 10.47 ** 0.95 3.74 0.77 ** -0.13 -0.03
OM – MEP 6.87 ** 0.74 1.88 0.37 + -1.63 -0.32
TNM – MEP 8.59 ** 0.86 2.85 0.59 ** -0.94 -0.19

Note. All effects controlling for gender, race, and income.


a
Multivariate effect sizes reported are Mahalanobis Distance statistics.
+
p<.06; * p<.05; ** p<.001

Lopata, wallace, and finn

ing the Montessori school would outper- and failed to support the general hypoth-
form students in magnet and traditional esis that Montessori students demonstrate
non-magnet schools. Results showed no superior academic performance. Of the
significant differences between students in 12 specific contrasts that were tested,
the Montessori school and any of the other students from the Montessori school had
three types of schools on language arts significantly higher achievement on 1 con-
achievement. trast, significantly lower achievement on 4
No significant difference on mathematics of 12 contrasts, and showed no difference
achievement was found between the Mon- from other schools on 7 of the 12 specific
tessori and SM schools, but Montessori was contrasts.
higher in math achievement than OM by .60 In the area of language arts, 4th-grade
standard deviations. In contrast, Montes- Montessori students did not significantly
sori students had significantly lower math differ from the structured magnet, open
achievement than TNM students; the effect magnet, or traditional non-magnet schools.
size was .37 standard deviations. At the 8th-grade level, however, Montessori
students had lower achievement than stu-
Grade 8 Results dents in structured magnet, open magnet,
A sig nif ica nt multiva r iate ef fect of and traditional non-magnet schools. For
school type was also found at grade 8 (F math achievement, 4th-grade Montessori
(6,476)=4.54, p<.001). Univariate tests students demonstrated significantly higher
of significance showed that school types scores than students in the open magnet, no
differed on language arts achievement (F difference from students in the structured
(3,239)=5.24, p <.01), but not on mathemat- magnet, and significantly lower scores than
ics (F (3,239)=1.33, p<.27). Results from students in the traditional non-magnet
the planned contrasts showed significant schools. In grade 8, however, no significant
differences between the Montessori and differences in mathematics achievement
other school types in language arts, but not were found between the Montessori and
in mathematics. Montessori students had magnet or traditional schools.
significantly lower language arts achieve- While the present study did not identify
ment than students attending both the a consistent pattern of performance across
SM and TNM schools. The language arts grade levels, the lack of significantly higher
differences were substantial; SM and TNM scores for students in the Montessori school
students scored higher than Montessori by suggests that assertions regarding the aca-
.77 and .59 standard deviations, respec- demic achievement efficacy of Montessori
tively. The OM students also had higher programs should be viewed with caution.
language arts achievement than Montes- Current results contradict those of other
sori, although this difference did not reach studies that found Montessori students’
statistical significance (p<.06). demonstrated superior academic growth
and achievement (e.g., Daux, 1995; Dawson,
Discussion 1987). Minimally, results of the current
Conflicting evidence and assertions, limited study suggested that Montessori students
empirical research, and methodological were similar in the majority of achievement
weaknesses in the existing research illus- comparisons to students from magnet and
trated the need for further study involving traditional non-magnet schools. A more
the effectiveness of Montessori schools. The critical finding, however, was that 8th-
current study tested the hypothesis that grade students from the Montessori school
students attending a Montessori school demonstrated substantially lower language
would demonstrate higher math and arts achievement than students from the
language arts achievement compared to other three programs.
magnet and traditional non-magnet school Several limitations in the current study
students. Overall, the results were mixed warrant mention. Data for the current

COMPARING MONTESSORI AND TRADITIONAL EDUCATION

study were gathered on one school from each Concepts and applications (3rd ed.). Upper
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