Comparison of Academic Achievement between Montessori and Traditional Education Programs

Article excerpt

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 Montessori 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 enrollment in a Montessori school was associated with higher academic achievement. Implications and suggestions for future research are provided.


Maria Montessori developed the first Montessori school in 1907 to serve children who were economically disadvantaged, as well as children with mental retardation (Pickering, 1992). Her work included development of specific educational methods and materials based on her beliefs about how children learn. Although Montessori programs historically have ended at age 6, elementary Montessori programs became more prevalent in the 1990s, with middle and secondary programs slowly emerging (Seldin, 2002-03). The Montessori movement received a boost in the United States when federal funding was released for magnet programs that allowed public funding for Montessori programs (Chattin-McNichols, 1992). Montessori programs are currently found in a variety of settings, including inner-city and affluent areas, large urban magnet programs, preschools for children at risk, and early childhood and child care centers (Haines, 1995). At present in the United States, there are an estimated 4,000 private Montessori programs and more than 200 Montessori-styled public schools serving students from infancy to 8th grade (North American Montessori Teachers' Association, 2003).

According to Ryniker and Shoho (2001), the Montessori approach is based on the tenet that children learn most effectively when information is developmentally appropriate. Central to this approach is the notion that children's natural tendencies "unfold" in specially designed multiage environments that contain manipulative self-correcting materials (North American Montessori Teachers' Association, 2003). Montessori reportedly identified genetically programmed "sensitive periods" in which children have exaggerated capacity and eagerness to acquire skills and information (Crain, 1992). Because each child's development is different, the individual child is allowed to choose activities, "trusting the child's sensitive periods will guide him to choose the work for which he is ready" (Pickering, 1992, p. 92).

In this approach, children learn at their own pace through manipulation of objects. As such, personal independence, self-discipline, and initiative are essential for learning and motivation, with motivation purportedly fostered through interactions in the environment (Kendall, 1993). Harris and Callender (1995) contend that the emphasis on these aspects leads to "inner discipline." In the Montessori approach, teachers do not "direct learning," but respect the children's efforts toward independent mastery (Crain, 1992). Instruction is based largely on sensory materials developed by Montessori (Ryniker & Shoho, 2001).

Montessori and traditional education programs reportedly differ in several ways, including physical environment, instructional methodology, and classroom attitude. For example, Montessori classrooms employ an open concept in which desks are arranged in "rafts" to promote individual and small-group learning and are composed of students across a three-year age range, whereas traditional classrooms have desks oriented in one direction for whole-group instruction and consist of same-grade students (Chattin-McNichols, 1992). In Montessori classrooms, students typically spend three to four hours per day in self-selected individual and small-group work and spend less than one hour per day in whole-group instruction (Baines & Snortum, 1973). …