There’s a common assumption lurking in lots of discussions about education reform: Instruction in basic skills is somehow in tension with enrichment. But when we distinguish “core” subjects from others, we’re setting up a hierarchy of priorities that has serious implications for instructional choices.

What’s more, this dynamic often pushes beyond the skills and subjects we prioritize—and into pedagogical strategies. For instance, emphasis on ensuring students develop strong reading and math skills often fuels targeted, direct instruction in pursuit of those goals. This makes intuitive sense: If students appear to have weak phonics skills, teachers ought to identify key letters and sounds and teach those in a clear, crisp way. There are good reasons to take this approach. But there’s a risk that this approach neglects other pedagogical considerations—in short, teacher-directed instruction isn’t always the most effective strategy for all students under all circumstances.

New research published in the Journal of Educational Psychology suggests some of the challenges that come with thinking of core skills in early education this way. Researchers Arya Ansari (UT-Austin) and Adam Winsler (George Mason) explored how Montessori pre-K programs affected the school readiness of African-American and Latino children. Approximately 90 percent of all students in this study were from families qualifying for free or reduced lunch. Could it be that Montessori’s student-directed pedagogy is as effective as conventional approaches to pre-K instruction? The answer turns out to be surprisingly complicated.

The researchers measured student progress on pre-academic skills as well as social-emotional and behavioral metrics. In this study, Latino students were, on average, the least prepared on school readiness metrics when they began pre-K. Yet they responded particularly strongly to Montessori programs—by the end of the year, their school readiness scores were above national averages. The effects were significant enough that the researchers suggested:

If Latino children’s enrollment in Montessori pre-school programs is raised, this might help reduce the racial and ethnic gaps in achievement that exists between Latino and White children.

It’s worth emphasizing that all pre-K—conventional or Montessori—helped all students’ school readiness. But the study found that curricular effects varied with student demographics. African-American students saw larger school readiness gains in conventional programs than in Montessori.

Why might this be so? The researchers speculated that it could reflect the language backgrounds involved. The Montessori curriculum focuses heavily on phonics, which may help Latino students whose families speak Spanish at home. What’s more, Montessori programs emphasize student-driven, individualized instruction, which may best suit these students’ unique developmental paths. Finally, Montessori’s commitment to cultural openness may make these programs more naturally prepared to take an assets-based view of students’ home languages and cultural backgrounds.

The study’s findings are very much at odds with how dual language learners are often treated in American public education. DLLs’ limited English skills are often a natural target for urgent, teacher-directed pedagogy that makes short-term English acquisition a priority above all other subjects, skills, and content. But the new study offers some evidence that this could be the wrong way to think about DLL students’ needs in the early years.

[Cross-posted at Ed Central]

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Conor Williams is a Senior Researcher in the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation. Find him on Twitter: @ConorPWilliams