Kindergarten Testing and Education Reform

Washington Post education blogger Valerie Strauss (who has written about Montessori, as noted on TMO) has picked up an op-ed about kindergarten testing in Oregon. Oregon five year-olds were able to name 19 letters out of 100 in a one-minute test.  Strauss is appropriately appalled about intensive timed testing of young children, and she goes on to detail the increasing focus on academic content and testing in early childhood education.  (Comments are still open on her blog.)

But from the Montessori perspective, it’s also appalling, or at least disappointing, that preschoolers are arriving in kindergarten without the ability to recognize letter sounds.  Because we know literacy in young children is developmentally normal and can emerge spontaneously in the appropriate environment without traditional adult-directed instruction and intrusive assessment.  It happens every day in Montessori Children’s House classrooms all over the world.

Strauss goes on to describe an ideal education model:

Research shows that children learn best when they have hands-on learning experiences, engage in structured play, experience facts within meaningful contexts, invent their own problems to explore and solve, and share their own solutions. The current emphasis on standards and testing has led many schools to over-focus on assessment at the expense of meeting children’s developmental needs and teaching meaningful content. Play and activity-based learning have been disappearing from many early childhood classrooms, and – along with them – children’s natural motivation and love of learning.

Emphasis added.

Finally, Strauss wraps up with a list of early childhood education practices to address the absence of this model.  Here’s her list, annotated with observations from our world:

Program practices:

1. Promote programs that are based on current research on how young children learn best.

Montessori: Not “based on”, but in line with.

2. Promote meaningful, hands-on learning experiences in classrooms for young children.

3. Work to ensure that teachers provide well-thought out educational experiences that demonstrate knowledge and respect for each child.

Montessori: check, and check.

4. Work to ensure that children have literacy experiences that include storytelling, quality children’s literature, and acting out stories rather than activities that isolate and drill discrete skills.

True Stories.  Literature. Reading Analysis.  Check.

5. Help teachers skillfully build curriculum from what children can do and understand instead of direct teaching skills that are disconnected from children’s understanding.

Essentially describes the first principles of Montessori pedagogy.

8. Work to ensure that teachers who have specialized training in early childhood education are placed in classrooms for young children.

Emphasis added.

Assessment practices:

1. Encourage policies that protect children from undue pressure and stress and from judgments that will have a negative impact on their lives in the present and in the future.

Respect children and their natural development.  Check.

2. Promote the use of assessments that are based on observations of children, their development and learning.

Emphasis added.

3. Work to ensure that classroom assessments are used for the purpose of improving instruction.

4. Support efforts to eliminate testing of young children that is not intended to improve classroom practice.

5. Eliminate labeling and ranking of children based on standardized tests.

Not a lot of classroom assessment, testing, and ranking in (mixed-age) Montessori environments.

What family members can do at home

1. Provide young children with space and time to play at home and in the neighborhood.

2. Read good quality children’s books and limit screen time.

3. Resist reinforcing the school’s agenda – drilling for skills – and replace it with opportunities for meaningful learning

Key features of parent education at many Montessori schools.

Strauss is appropriately worked up about the way reform is pushing content and testing that’s not appropriate.  But we in Montessori have a time-tested approach that brings together almost all of these elements and introduces the academic content without force-feeding or intrusive testing.  There is a national push on for “high-quality” early childhood education, and we have something really valuable to add to the conversation.

More in the next day or two on how we can do that.


Montessori, Scentist—Now in Forbes

OK, this is interesting.

Intelligent conservative business and economics writer Pascal-Emmanuel Gorby has a great piece up at Forbes, The Future of Education Was Invented in 1906. It’s a take on a Wired article from October about a “radical new teaching method”: self-directed learning.  Only, as Gorby points out, there’s nothing new about it.

And here’s the part I really like (naturally!)—he lays out really clearly something I’ve been saying all along, an insight at the core of what makes Montessori special:

Montessori education was so groundbreaking because it was the first (and, to my knowledge only), scientific education method. By which I mean the following: every other education method is based on an abstract model of the child and then derives education methods from that. Maria Montessori, a doctor and a researcher, went the other way around: she experimented with methods and, based on the results, built up a theory of the child, which she then tested and refined through experiment.

The reason why everything is the way it is in a proper Montessori classroom is simple: it has been shown through repeated experiment to work, in countless classrooms, across cultures, etc.

Preach it, Gorby! At the core, it’s not what we do that makes Montessori special—it’s why we do what we do.

Now, Gorby is definitely a voice from pretty far outside of the Montessori movement.  He’s a staunch conservative business and economics-oriented thinker and writer, and a committed Catholic. He would be at home in some segments of the Montessori world and an unlikely guest in many others.  All the better!  The more smart, connected, articulate people talking about what really makes Montessori tick, the better.

More on Gorby: His Forbes bio can be found here, his eminently sensible and (and decidedly non-mainstream conservative) take on public debt here, his take on French parenting and education here. Finally, his Amazon book reviews, including excellent 5 star reviews of Montessori books here.

Universal Pre-K? That’s What We Do

Universal pre-kindergarten is all over the news today, thanks to Bill deBlasio, newly elected democratic mayor of New York City, who turned down Governor Cuomo’s $1.5 billion-with-a-b offer as too stingy. DeBlasio won 73% of the vote with a plan to tax city incomes over $500,000 to pay for a huge expansion, and he seems to think he can get it.  However the chips fall, early childhood education in New York is about to get super-sized.

This ought to be great news for Montessori, right? A titan of money and influence is about to go looking for the best early childhood model going and implement it with national visibility and a budget we don’t even have a concrete material for!  (A thousand cube made up of million cubes will give you a rough idea.)

But that’s not what’s going to happen.  Bill deBlasio may have heard of Montessori, or not.  But it’s not likely that he’s going to look to an internationally practiced, developmentally based approach with a hundred-year pedigree to implement in New York City. There are two reasons for that.

First, even if he wanted it, Montessori doesn’t have the scale to meet his needs.  The New York Times reports that there are about 100,000 4-year-olds in New York City.  At 10 per class, that’s 10,000 classrooms.  At a guess, that’s more primary teachers than were ever trained in the U.S. It’s very likely more primary classrooms than currently exist in this country. That’s not just out of our league—it’s out of our universe.

Second, you can be sure that whatever he implements will have reams of research and documentation to back it up.  Now, this is a bit tricky.  The research on early childhood intervention (basically Head Start and the Perry study) is mixed at best: academic gains tend to wash out by 8th grade or before, and the Perry study included just 123 children.  This suggests a couple of things.  First, even if cognitive gains are lost with later schooling, let’s not forget that improving children’s well-being while they are still children is a net reduction in human misery, and  could be considered an end in itself.  Second, if the gains of supportive and attentive education are lost when children enter the traditional model, maybe it’s the traditional model that has the problem!

But that’s all moot, because Montessori doesn’t have much data one way or another.  And why is that? It goes back to Montessori not having a well-documented population, or even agreed-on definitions.  And what would help with that?  How about a national survey of Montessori schools, documenting number, distribution, demographic profile, Montessori practices, professional affiliation, etc.?

Oh wait—someone’s on it!  In case you somehow haven’t heard, the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector has a census out, and anyone—well, any Montessori school—can play.  If your (U.S.) school is not on the census, stop reading and click on over now.  Or send that email to your head of school.  Here’s that link again: Jackie Cossentino said it.  Keith Whitescarver said it.  Stephen Hughes said it.

The Montessori census will serve as a gateway for collaborative, wide-scale Montessori research in the US. We need high-quality schools to get involved so that they can be asked to participate in future Montessori research.

More Montessori for more children?  Step one: More Montessori.  More awareness, more children enrolled—even if they pay tuition! More teacher trainers, more trained teachers, more schools.  Step two: reaching more children.  More Montessori for more children who can’t afford tuition.  More studies for policy makers.  More data for school boards.  More great stories for decision makers.  More great Montessori. 100,000 strong and growing

ImageThis just in from the Montessori Census:

831 schools are now listed, serving over 100,000 students.  Just over half are public schools, which means that about 400 private schools have signed on to the project.  That’s great, but that means there’s still more than 3,000 schools out there if what we’ve been saying is correct.

It’s critical that we get every single school we can represented here.  100,000 is a number that makes people pay attention.  That’s how many people attended the Super Bowl last year. It’s a town the size of Boulder, Colorado. It’s more Facebook fans than the French Winter Olympics team.

But what if everyone got on board?  That could be 400,000 children.  Now we’re talking Minneapolis, Cleveland, or Miami.  Attendance at Woodstock in 1969.  More fans than Ikea.

Something that touches the lives of 400,000 children is a big deal.  For a more serious reference, that’s how many children are in foster care in the U.S.  If people knew—if we knew—that Montessori was about 400,000 children, do you think maybe we could get a little traction?

So get your school, your child’s school, your friends’ children’s schools, to sign up today.  Sign them up yourself!  They can always fill in the information later.  Talk to your state organization, your national organization (AMI-USA, AMS), your professional organizations.  Click on the link ( Let’s take this to the next level.

New Research Supports Montessori — Or Does It?

Child Develpment coverThere’s a new study out in Child Development (a leading peer-reviewed journal in the field), and covered in the Washington Post, that goes straight to Montessori’s complicated interaction with the world of academically recognized empirical science.

The study challenges the commonly held view that children under six do not understand place value in multi-digit numbers.  Instead, the authors found some understanding, most likely gleaned from environmental experiences hearing and seeing such numbers, in children as young as three.  Children were able to identify and compare spoken numbers, choosing among written representations, images of base-10 blocks, and clusters of dots, with an accuracy significantly greater than chance.

This is great news for Montessori teachers, since we have been presenting place value and operations with four-digit numbers to four and five year old children for more than one hundred years.  There’s that smug little affirmation we get when solid research bears out something we already do.

But that’s not the only result the study found.

The authors went on to give children instruction in identifying and comparing multi-digit numbers using two different methods: decimal block manipulatives (similar to Montessori golden bead material) and abstract symbols (single digits on cards).  Surprisingly (to Montessorians), the manipulatives instruction was much less effective at improving numeral recognition.  In fact, children who were instructed with decimal blocks scored lower on testing after instruction.

What are we to make of this?  As Montessorians, we’re a little prone to smugly identifying published research with confirms our preconceived notions and our century of practice.  We sometimes speak of “the science catching up with Montessori.” But we’re not always so quick to point out research that points the other way.  There’s no denying it: we cherry-pick the science.

This piece throws that practice into sharp relief. All in the same article, a scientific affirmation of Montessori and — a challenge. Now, it’s easy to attack the conclusions of the second finding.  “What kind of manipulatives?  What kind of instruction?  Ours is better!  Our approach gives the child real understanding of the decimal system, not some pointless superficial ability to get the right answers.”

Well, maybe so.  But we don’t get to accept the first finding and throw out the others just because we have a gut feeling that they’re wrong.  These are empirical claims, and if we are going to hitch our wagon to empirical science (which we should and must, following Montessori-as-scientist), we need to get out there and prove them.  That’s how science is done.  One study by itself isn’t the end of the story—it’s the beginning.  But to be part of that story, we need to be represented in the academy, and to be willing to put our claims and methods to the test.

Comments are open on the Post piece here (scroll down, log in).  You can contact the authors of the study through their institutions:  Kelly S. Mix  and Jerri Stockton at Michigan State, Linda S. Prather and Richard Prather at Indiana State.

Montessori Goes to Harvard

With Yale researching Montessori, I guess Harvard had to get in the game:

This is a new video from The Harvard Center on the Developing Child‘s InBrief series, featuring lots of great footage from a Montessori school.  It’s a big deal for two reasons.

First, the topic of the video is Executive Function: Skills For Life and Learning.  Executive function (wiki), which comprises planning, working memory, inhibitory control, and problem-solving, among other abilities, is having its moment in the news these days as educators and researchers focus on its importance in early childhood education—the Marshmallow Test being the pop-culture icon for the concept. Montessori Children’s Houses, with their emphasis on order, sequence, limitation of materials, and student-directed activity, are little laboratories of executive function, of course, and researchers have begun to take notice: Adele Diamond, on YouTube and at the Montessori Congress ($10), AMI Trainer Larry Quade, Dr. Stephen Hughes, and even at Harvard.

And that’s the second reason this is a big deal. The Harvard Center on the Developing Child, directed by national child development researcher and thought leader Jack Shonkoff, is so huge, influential, and pervasive in the child development world that it’s hard to know where to start (about, history, FAQ).  It emerged from the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, now itself a program of the Center, along with the National Forum on Early Childhood Policy and Programs and the Global Children’s Initiative among others.  Partnered with the National Conference of State Legislatures and the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, the Center is enormously influential in the development of state and national policies and practices in education and child development.

A lot of important people are going to see this video, and although it doesn’t mention Montessori by name, they are probably going to be able to figure it out. And they are going to see that there’s something really special happening in those classrooms, and they are going to want to know more.

That’s the way to be in the conversation.

Bonus:  I learned that the video was shot at Three Tree Montessori in Burien, Washington, for the Washington State Department of Early Learning online training to provide information on executive function.  The training course, with additional video, is here.  Somehow—I’m still digging into exactly how—it made its way into the Harvard piece.

You’ll notice that Tools of the Mind is mentioned by name in the video, while Montessori is not.  A source connected to the video tells me that teachers were directed away from using “Montessori” in their interviews.  Interesting.

Montessori in pictures

The mixed-age classroom:

Imageolder child ties apron as younger child watches intently one year laterone year later

Sometimes if all you see is the finished product, you miss out on the process:

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