Are Montessori Schools Better Than Public Schools?

Dr. Angeline Lillard discusses her new research on the benefits of a Montessori education.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | December 16, 2021

A new paper published in Frontiers in Psychology provides more evidence that a Montessori education may be superior to traditional methods of education, especially on measures relating to students' psychological health and well-being.

I recently spoke with Dr. Angeline Lillard, a psychologist at the University of Virginia and lead author of the research, to discuss these findings in more detail. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to investigate the topic of Montessori education and well-being and what did you find?

Montessori itself inspired me — it is the longest-surviving and most widely implemented alternative pedagogy in the world, yet it has been the subject of surprisingly little research. The pedagogy emerged out of scientific observation of children ages birth to 18, and its primary features are very well aligned with research coming out of psychology and education showing conditions under which humans learn and thrive (for example, embodied cognition, self-determination, collaboration).

The late Ed Diener, the world's leading expert on wellbeing, spent a few years in my department, leading me to ask whether attending Montessori schools might confer long term benefits; a first approach to answering this causal question is simply to examine if people who went to Montessori have higher adult wellbeing, which we did here. We thought it unlikely that we would find anything, so we threw the kitchen sink at it by giving a large set of common wellbeing surveys to almost 2,000 people who went to Montessori or conventional schools, ranged in age from 18 to 81, and had attended Montessori for an average of 8 years. Our analyses controlled for age, race/ethnicity, gender, childhood SES, and private schooling, so we can confidently say that none of those factors is causing the results.

What surprised us is that pretty much everything in the sink turned out significant — on almost every survey, people who had spent at least two years in Montessori had higher wellbeing than people who never went to Montessori. This was true even among the subsample who attended private schools their entire pre-college lives. We also found that the longer one had attended, the higher their wellbeing.

About how many students attend Montessori schools in the United States?

My guess is a bit over half a million at any given time. The Montessori Census currently registers 564 public and 2,211 private Montessori schools, but these are certainly underestimated. Most public Montessoris are Title I schools, and over half the children at public Montessori schools are children of color, who particularly thrive at Montessori. For example, a recent study of test scores showed that Black children in public Montessoris outperformed Black children in other district schools in both math and reading.

What are the practical takeaways from your research for parents considering a Montessori education for their child/children?

This particular study only shows suggestive evidence of an association between long-term wellbeing and Montessori. This association is consistent with other evidence that suggests a causal relationship. First, natural experiments using lottery controls show that high fidelity public Montessori puts one on a trajectory towards higher wellbeing, in that academic and social-emotional outcomes are better.

Second, as outlined in a 2019 article, features of Montessori schools, like self-determination and collaborative learning are associated with higher wellbeing both contemporaneously and predictively. Our duration findings are also suggestive. Thus, having some Montessori school experience could lead to higher adult wellbeing — but from this study, we cannot say Montessori causes higher adult wellbeing, and the average differences we found were also modest from an individual standpoint.

However, compared to other real-world school effects, the differences were impressive, and thus the main import of the study is its implication for schooling models and societal wellbeing more generally. The study is one more data point in a growing body of research suggesting Montessori pedagogy is better for humans than is the common model. And since it is over 100 years since people began implementing Montessori, it has been beta-tested — we know how to implement this pedagogy and are doing so all over the world. More people should know about it.

Has research identified any downsides to a Montessori education?

Studies suggest that poorly-implemented Montessori is not advantageous; in fact, one study where implementation was questionable even showed a worse outcome in reading. But generally, including in two forthcoming meta-analyses, the outcomes that have been studied show positive results. The biggest downside for parents might be a lack of familiarity. There can be comfort in knowing that one's children are repeating one's own childhood experiences. Also, given that there are fewer than a thousand public Montessoris, access can be problematic.

Did you find any gender differences or other demographic differences (for example, boys benefiting more than girls from a Montessori education)?

We controlled for basic demographics in this study. In the research more generally, there do not appear to be gender differences, but the research does suggest that children who fare least well in conventional schools (like lower-income and historically minoritized children) especially thrive in Montessori. There are hints in the literature that Black boys might especially flourish in Montessori — but these are just hints thus far.

After conducting your research, are you more likely to view Montessori education as a smart choice for parents looking to optimize their child's educational experience?

This one study would not convince me of that — it only shows an association. But this study in the context of a host of other findings, some of which are clearly causal (natural experiments) and others that control for baseline, suggest to me that Montessori is a very wise choice for school districts across the nation and the world if it can be implemented well. As with most programs, implementation matters. Public school implementers tell me the costs are equivalent over time when the state accepts the Montessori teaching credential, which more and more do.

Do you have plans for follow-up research? Where would you like to see this research go in the future?

We have more analyses to do of the data here, including a closer look at different demographic groups, and additional findings not reported here. For example, we found adults who went to Montessori scored higher on the Big 5 "Openness to Experience" measure. We want to test Montessori parents to see if they also have this trait and, if so, if they had it as much when their children first enrolled in Montessori or whether it increases over one's time in an alternative school setting. We also would like to examine wellbeing contemporaneously, perhaps comparing children in Montessori schools to children in different types of schools, to examine how it develops over time.

In addition to surveys, we plan to look at different biomarkers of well-being like oxytocin and cortisol levels.