Montessori schooling may advantage low-income Latinos

Montessori-style programs have long been a popular choice among upper-class parents for their children,  but recent research suggests that Montessori-style pre-kindergarten may particularly beneficial for low-income Latino children – especially for acquiring language skills.

Ayra Ansari of UT-Austin and Adam Winsler of George Mason University examined 13,000 low-income black and Latino students in the Miami-Dade school district enrolled in either a conventional Pre-K or Montessori Pre-K program. They found that all children showed improvements in language, motor, and cognitive skills by attending preschool. However, Latino children – most of whose primary language was Spanish, demonstrated the greatest gains relative to national benchmarks.

Montessori programs differ from most traditional educational programs by emphasizing children learning at their own paces in highly individualized activities, which students play a role in selecting.

The paper, entitled “Montessori Public School Pre-K Programs and the School Readiness of Low-Income Black and Latino Children” appeared May 12 online in the Journal of Educational Psychology.

The most striking finding was in language skills. At the beginning of the year, Latino students enrolled in the program scored on average in the 35th percentile of a national benchmark, which was the lowest of the four groups of children in the study (Latinos in conventional programs, blacks in conventional programs and blacks in Montessori). By the end of the year, the Latino students in Montessori programs were scoring at the 65th percentile – at or slightly higher than the other three groups.

The results were nearly at the same magnitude for measures of fine motor skills and cognitive development.

The authors suggested that the Montessori’s method on individualized learning and embrace of culture may drive increases in gains among Latino students.

“Montessori curricula emphasizes individualized instruction and independent learning for each child; therefore, for Latino children who may still be learning the English language, Montessori affords them the opportunity to learn at their own pace and master the skills necessary for future academic development.” Ansari and Winsler wrote.

They added that Montessori’s emphasis on the child’s home culture might also ease the transition from home life to school by limiting the number of differences a child has to adapt to at once.

The study is the first to focus on the effects of Montessori education among low-income students, and on Latino students. Most previous students had focused on general effects of Montessori programs or effects on black students.

A large majority of students enrolled in Montessori programs in the United States tend to be high-income white children.

To reach their results, Ansari and Winsler measured students’ cognitive, motor and language abilities at the beginning and end of the year using the Learning Accomplishment Profile Diagnostic, a common measure used to evaluate young children. Both teachers and parents filled out the Devereux Early Childhood Assessment at the beginning and the end of the year to measure changes in the children’s socio-emotional and behavioral skills over the academic year.

The authors also acknowledge several potential research design programs may call into question the study’s results. Most seriously, five of the eight Montessori neighborhood schools are located in predominantly black neighborhoods and have magnet programs. As a result, most of the neighborhood children at the school are black while many of the students admitted through the magnet program are Latino children from different neighborhoods. This might indicate that a greater percentage of Latino students than black students in Montessori programs under study come from highly motivated families, which may skew the results.

Ansari and Winsler also noted that a large percentage of the Latino students were likely first- or second- generation immigrants, who tend to perform better in school over time than their counterparts. However, they lacked enough specific data on the children’s identities to rule out that particular hypothesis.

Finally, the authors note that budget cuts have sharply curtailed the availability of pre-K programs to poor students. Florida cut $1.1 billion in its pre-K-12 education budget in 2011 alone, which eliminated pre-K for 15,000 low-income students throughout the state. Montessori programs, which tend to be more expensive to run, often face the budget axe first.

For an overview of Houston area Montessori schools, see here.

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