Montessori vs. Traditional Education in the Public Sector: Seeking Appropriate Comparisons of Academic Achievement

Article excerpt

Introduction

The Montessori Method has long received consideration as an alternative to traditional educational practices. Interest was initiated in the early part of the twentieth century when Dr. Maria Montessori, an Italian physician, disclosed academic achievement among a group of children considered to be profoundly learning disabled. The startling effect of this disclosure, unimagined at the time, propelled Dr. Montessori and her academic ideas to the forefront of both educational and social circles where best practices in curriculum and instruction were of particular interest. Her method was subsequently applied in schools with normal populations, and equally exciting results ensued. Early reports identified academic achievements for this population which exceed expectations as well.

Following the initial burst of interest, educational professionals have often examined the ways in which the Montessori Method might provide benefits to a wide range of learners. Its virtues with respect to peace education have been extolled on numerous fronts, and its focus on the individual child might be compared with existential ideas regarding personal journeys in education and in life. Another feature of Montessori which has received considerable attention relates to the role of the teacher, a role that is perceived as that of facilitator or coach, or, to use the Montessori vernacular, a preparer of the environment for young learners. This description does not include the type of direct and often whole-group instruction one might expect to find in traditional schools, and the elimination of this feature is often attractive to educators and parents who hope to fashion an educational experience for children based on individual choice and feedback.

The question of comparing academic achievement between Montessori and traditional methods, however, remains largely unanswered, although interest in the question persists. While many features of Montessori education seem attractive both to the educational community and to parents who are seeking the best school placement for their children, measurements of standardized achievement for Montessori have been in short supply. Some studies have undertaken to assess student performance in Montessori education, however they have often relied on anecdotal rather than quantitative and standardized measures, and they have often been confounded by challenges with competing independent variables and conclusions which might not be considered entirely justifiable. The issue of assessment seems to have languished for a long time, considering the scope of Montessori's longevity in the field of education. This may be, at least in part, because the Method, for many years, was practiced almost exclusively in the private sector. Many Montessori schools, both historically and contemporaneously, eschew both grades and standardized testing as inconsistent with the Method and with the goals of Montessori education in general. A change, however, has evolved in public school districts which has encouraged a new look at assessing the academic achievement wrought by Montessori education. Many public school systems have begun offering Montessori as a magnet option. Other districts are considering the same addition to their spectrum of school choice. These public institutions require an assessment of academic achievement that is consistent with the protocol used nationally. This protocol, of course, takes the form of standardized test scores.

The apparent disjoint between typical Montessori assessment, which relies most often on anecdotal and portfolio-type evidence, and that employed in the public sector creates a challenge in comparison. It is important to overcome the challenge for a number of reasons. Montessori has become a popular magnet option for school districts nationwide. Public schools are required to make achievement comparisons which will not be perceived as comparisons of apples and oranges. …