Montessori equity research pivots to access
The Brady Education Foundation’s (BEF) $3M Montessori research initiative, launched in 2017 and covered here on MontessoriPublic, has made a major shift in focus in response to the very issues of access, fidelity, and equity the work was intended to address.
Originally intended to investigate the effectiveness of fully implemented Montessori education across racial, cultural, and family income demographics, research teams discovered that focusing on programs with a three-year age span which used a random lottery and served a consistent and diverse population left them with a sample size too small to draw meaningful conclusions. In other words, there just weren’t enough children of color in high-quality, true lottery Montessori schools for a meaningful study! From their report:
“It appears that the systems that create and maintain inequities in early education, and education writ large, may also make it difficult to rigorously study their effects.”
In a deft move, BEF Board has turned this seemingly insurmountable problem into a new direction. If the problem is the small number of Black and Hispanic children enrolled in truly accessible, high-quality Montessori programs, the research questions change: Why is that enrollment so low? What are the barriers, structural and otherwise? What can be learned even without a truly random sample? How can Montessori quality be measured and improved?
The original plan of the study created a Brady Education Foundation Montessori Initiative Network (BEFMIN), comprising teams from three institutions:
- Child Trends, a national research center focusing on children
- The Riley Institute at Furman University, sponsor of a massive 2016 study of public Montessori in South Carolina (covered here on MontessoriPublic)
- The Center for Montessori Research at the University of Kansas (CMR)
These three teams will work in collaboration on separate projects to answer these new questions.
The Child Trends team will investigate systemic challenges to equitable access. The team will conduct a public policy/landscape study into public Montessori pre-K, focusing on three questions:
- What are the recruitment and enrollment practices?
- What factors drive having more or fewer applicants than available placements?
- What are families’ perceptions of Montessori and other early education options?
The Riley Institute will take on the original goal of investigating the potential of Montessori to close opportunity gaps, using a quasi-experimental study. Although the design will not meet the “gold standard” of a randomized controlled trial (RCT), the Furman team can build on their experience with this model and should still be able to add compelling evidence to the big picture.
The team at the Center for Montessori Research will continue their work developing a classroom observation tool to help non-Montessori researchers accurately identify and record elements of Montessori practice. BEF will also sponsor the CMR’s next annual research retreat with an enhanced focus on equity.
Taken together, these efforts should help lay the foundation for the study that was originally intended, and make a significant contribution to the field in their own right. If barriers to equitable access can be rigorously studied and understood, they can be more effectively countered and dismantled. If effectiveness with lower-income and diverse populations can be demonstrated, even with the limitations of a non-RCT study, that will pave the way for more robust research. And a reliable Montessori implementation tool can help clarify the effectiveness of different aspects of the method.
At the same time, a federal Institute of Educational Sciences (IES) funded study led by the American Institutes for Research (AIR), covered here, with a different but related focus, is underway, and their results will also broaden and inform the field of study.