Montessori preschool boosts academic results and reduces income achievement gap

A longitudinal study published in Frontiers in Psychology examined how children in Montessori schools changed over three years compared with children in other pre-school settings.

The Montessori model involves both child-directed, freely-chosen activity and academic content. Angeline Lillard and colleagues compared educational outcomes for children allocated places by a random lottery to either Montessori pre-schools (n=70) or non-Montessori pre-school settings (n=71) in Connecticut, US. The research team carried out a variety of assessments with the children over a three-year period, from when the children were three until they were six.

The researchers found that over time children in Montessori pre-schools performed better on measures of academic achievement (Woodcock–Johnson IIIR Tests of Achievement effect size = +0.41) and social understanding, while enjoying their school work more, than those in conventional pre-school settings. They also found that in Montessori classrooms, children from low-income families, who typically don’t perform as well in school, showed similar academic performance as children from higher-income families. Children with low executive function similarly performed as well as those with high executive function.

The findings, they suggest, indicate that well-implemented Montessori education could be a way to help disadvantaged children to achieve their academic potential.

Source: Montessori Preschool Elevates and Equalizes Child Outcomes: A Longitudinal Study (October 2017), Frontiers in Psychology

Can teaching be simplified?

Technology that simplifies teaching by providing teachers with “off-the-shelf” lessons may increase pupil achievement, particularly if the teachers are supported in using them, according to a working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER).

The study, conducted by Kirabo Jackson and Alexey Makarin, provided middle school maths teachers with online lessons from the Mathalicious curriculum – an inquiry-based maths curriculum for grades 6 to 12 (Years 7 to 13) grounded in real-world topics and situations. Maths teachers from 170 schools across Virginia, US, took part and were randomly assigned to one of three conditions: full treatment (online access to Mathalicious lessons along with supports to promote their use); lesson-only (online access to Mathalicious lessons only); or control (business-as-usual).

While positive effects on pupil achievement in maths were seen in both the full treatment and lesson-only conditions, results were only significant for the full-treatment group. Providing teachers with online access to the lessons along with supports to promote their use increased pupil maths achievement by an effect size of +0.09 (p<.05). Test scores for pupils in the lesson-only group were non-significantly higher than those of the control group (effect size = +0.04).

Source: Can Online Off-The-Shelf Lessons Improve Student Outcomes? Evidence from A Field Experiment (January 2017), National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), NBER Working Paper No. 22398

Defining chronic absence

Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), US schools are obliged to evaluate their performance using four academic achievement measures and one non-academic measure. Most states have adopted “chronic absenteeism” as their fifth indicator.

FutureEd, a “think tank” organisation at Georgetown University, has released “Who’s In: Chronic Absenteeism Under the Every Student Succeeds Act”, a report that analyses the 51 state ESSA plans regarding absenteeism and relates them to federal data on chronic absenteeism.

State ESSA plans show that 36 US states and Washington, DC have included chronic absences in their performance indicators. Yet there is no set standard to define chronic absenteeism. Of the 36 states using attendance as a performance indicator, 27 states define chronic absenteeism as missing ten percent of school days; five states inversely require 90% or more attendance, two states require more, and three states define it as missing a set number of days. Most states have not established standards for how many chronically absent pupils a school should have.

The review of federal absence rates shows that chronic absence is more prevalent in high school than in the earlier grades, and more prevalent among pupils from lower socio-economic status. Researchers found that the greatest variance in attendance is not between states or districts, but between schools within the same district. In fact, two-thirds of the variance was among schools in the same district, showing that measuring attendance is a meaningful measure of a school’s performance.

Suggestions to increase attendance include:

  • Establishing a nationwide standard definition for “chronic absence”, expressed as a percentage of the school year.
  • Including all absences, not just unexcused ones, in determining if a pupil has a chronic problem.
  • Establishing, by state, what percentage of chronic absences is too high for their schools and then set a realistic, achievable goal to measure improvement.
  • Giving teachers professional development credit to attend workshops on strategies to improve attendance.

Source: Who’s In: Chronic Absenteeism Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (September 2017), FutureEd, Georgetown University

The evidence on achievement gaps over time: Contained but not closing

Research has shown that socioeconomic status (SES) is the highest predictor of children’s academic achievement. Moreover, the achievement gap between low- and high-SES pupils begins early in their schooling. How effective have initiatives been at narrowing the achievement gap? Emma Garcia at the Education Policy Institute in the US and Elaine Weiss at the Broader Bolder Approach to Education examined two cohorts of kindergartners (Year 1), those who started in 1998 and those who started in 2010. They were looking at the relationship between socio-economic status and kindergartners’ cognitive and non-cognitive skills at the start of their school years to see if the achievement gap had narrowed in this twelve-year span.

Using data from the National Center for Education Statistics – Early Childhood Longitudinal Studies of the Kindergarten Classes of 1998-99 and 2010-11, Garcia and Weiss found that the achievement gap did not change between 1998 to 2010 among pupils living in the US’s highest and lowest economic strata, a difference of 1.17 standard deviations in reading and 1.25 standard deviations in maths, despite parents’ increased involvement in educating their children across all SES groups and the implementation of programmes designed to narrow these gaps. Interestingly, they did find that the percentage of children living in poverty grew during that time, yet the achievement gap did not grow, nor did it narrow. They found that greater parental involvement and children’s pre-school attendance contained the gap, but did not do enough to eliminate the overall effects of poverty on pupil achievement.

The researchers then reviewed twelve programmes designed to narrow the achievement gap. The most effective programmes addressed not only academics, but ensured the children were getting proper meals and healthcare and provided other supports for children and their families.

Source: Education inequalities at the school starting gate: Gaps, trends, and strategies to address them (September 2017), Education Policy Institute

New research on technology integration in the classroom

Dr Jennifer Morrison and colleagues from the Center for Research and Reform in Education (CRRE) are evaluating a technology-integration initiative for Baltimore County Public Schools in Maryland, US, called Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow (S.T.A.T.). The initiative began in the 2014-15 school year with 10 pilot elementary (primary) schools and has since expanded to all elementary schools, middle schools and selected high schools. CRRE is conducting a mixed-methods evaluation of the initiative, including classroom observations, interviews, focus groups, surveys and an examination of pupil achievement data. The evaluation is taking place over five years.

CRRE recently completed the third year of the evaluation, and results revealed continuing changes in teacher practice, perceptions of increased pupil engagement and positive trends in achievement for pupils in grades 3 to 5 (Years 4 to 6).

In a previous edition of Best Evidence in Brief, we reported on a review of the research literature on the infusion of technology into the school curriculum, also completed by CRRE. Multiple studies in that review reported higher engagement of pupils with their coursework when involved in one-to-one laptop programmes, which produced two key benefits: a development of a deeper level of understanding and an increase in pupil achievement. However, our researchers pointed out that, “Just as buying a professional-looking mixer will not make you a better cook, technology alone will not make pupil learning better. If the teacher, though, introduces new methods of teaching requiring different uses of a computer rather than to simply present information, then we are likely to see an improvement in learning”.

Source: Students and teachers accessing tomorrow – year three evaluation report (September 2017), Center for Research and Reform in Education

Project-based learning

A working paper from MDRC builds on and updates a literature review of project-based learning (PBL) published in 2000. Focused primarily on articles and studies that have emerged in the last 17 years, the working paper discusses the principles of PBL, how PBL has been used in K–12 (Year 1–13) settings, the challenges teachers face in implementing it, how school and local factors influence its implementation and what is known about its effectiveness in improving learning outcomes.

The report suggests that the evidence for PBL’s effectiveness in improving pupil outcomes is “promising, but not proven”.  The biggest challenge to evaluating the effectiveness of PBL, the researchers suggest, is a lack of consensus about the design of PBL and how it fits in with other teaching methods. Some studies have found positive effects associated with the use of PBL. However, without a clear vision of what a PBL approach should look like, it is difficult for teachers and schools to assess the quality of their own implementation and know how to improve their approach. They also suggest that PBL implementation is particularly challenging because it changes pupil–teacher interactions and requires a shift from teacher-directed to pupil-directed inquiry and requires non-traditional methods of assessment.

The paper concludes with recommendations for advancing the PBL research literature in ways that will improve PBL knowledge and practice.

Source: Project-Based Learning: a literature review (October 2017), A MDRC Working Paper