Does Montessori Prepare Students for College?

If your child attends a Montessori school, you’ve likely experienced friends and family members coming to you to express concern that Montessori isn’t an adequate way to prepare children for college. You may have even had these doubts yourself! So, let’s see if we can settle this question once and for all: Do Montessori schools prepare students for college?

The answer is a resounding YES! Not only do Montessori schools prepare students for college, there is evidence to suggest that Montessori schools do a better job at it than other schools, even schools that are specifically focused on college prep.

Let’s explore what makes Montessori schools so effective in preparing students for college.

Montessori High School

How Montessori Prepares Students for College

Before diving into the “why” behind Montessori education effectively preparing students for college, let’s look at the facts.

Because many children attend Montessori schools for only part of their education and because Montessori high schools are relatively rare, there is no definitive data about the percentage of students who have attended Montessori schools who go on to attend college.

However, there is other data that we can draw on to get a better picture of how Montessori education can impact student success by more traditional metrics.

For one, despite the fact that Montessori education is wholly devoid of the concept of “test-prep,” Montessori students regularly outscore their peers on standardized tests in both reading and math. Montessori education has also been shown to improve language acquisition for English Language Learners. A particularly exciting study for those of us interested in how Montessori education might affect our children as they transition into other learning environments showed that students who completed their Montessori education in fifth grade continued to significantly outscore their peers on standardized tests throughout high school.

But standardized tests aren’t everything, right? While scoring well on these tests will certainly help students as they apply to colleges, a lot more goes into being college-ready than testing skills. To start with, students need to finish their K-12 education!

Luckily for Montessori students, they are significantly more likely to do so. One Montessori high school reported a 94% graduation rate for their students….in a district where the graduation rate is an astonishingly low 50%. It’s worth noting that this same school reported an 88% college acceptance rate, which was similarly much higher than the district average. Montessori students are also much more likely to report positive feelings about their schools, teachers, and peers than more traditionally educated students.

Overall, Montessori education has been shown across countless studies and data sets to have a holistic positive effect on student learning. From Kindergarten-readiness to place-value understanding to executive functioning to creative writing abilities, Montessori students are academically outshining their peers time and time again.

Why is Montessori Effective for College Readiness?

But why? What makes Montessori so effective? Why are Montessori students so much better equipped for college than their peers?

Let’s start with academics. As discussed in the previous section, Montessori students are leaving their peers in the dust across all academic subjects. But a traditionally educated student is typically spending more hours per week on direct instruction in math, writing, reading, science, and social studies than a Montessori student. So, why are the Montessori students performing better?

While direct instruction can sometimes be an effective teaching tool, children absorb information more quickly and with more staying power through experiential learning. While traditional students might sit through a lecture on calculating volume then go back to their desks to complete a worksheet presenting math problems for them to solve using formulas they were just introduced to, Montessori students are exploring volume hands-on by playing with different real life objects and examining what volume looks like in a real life context.

While a traditional teacher is thinking about how to best explain this abstract concept to their students, a Montessori teacher is considering how best to facilitate their students experiencing this concept. And, because of this, their students will internalize their learning more deeply, more permanently, and with more nuance and complexity.

College-readiness also requires something that traditional schools have all but abandoned: life skills.

Montessori and Practical Life Skills Aid College-Readiness

Imagine for a moment that you’re an eighteen year old kid in your first year of college. You’re living away from home for the first time and you have a packed academic schedule. Though you always received pretty good grades in high school, you weren’t the strongest writer and you’re a little overwhelmed by the staggering amount of essays required in your course-load. In addition to that, you have to take care of yourself as an adult for the first time.

If you grew up without a Montessori education, this very common scenario could set you on a path to dropping out. It’s not that you’re an exceptionally bad student or that college is too hard for you, there’s just too much you need to learn all at once and you aren’t equipped with the skills you need.

You wanted to get a head start on one of your essays, but first you need to figure out how to do laundry without shrinking all of your clothes; you try to focus on the readings, but you’re distracted by hunger because the only food you know how to cook is instant ramen; you know you should ask your professor for help, but you’re not used to having adult conversations with authority figures and you consider teachers to be authority figures; you need to buy a textbook for class but you spent most of your money without realizing it; you’re put on academic probation and know you should make a plan to fix things but you don’t even know where to start. Little situations become bigger and bigger and life becomes more and more overwhelming until you’re convinced that college is just too much for you – you’re just not cut out for it.

teenager doing laundry

As a Montessori student, on the other hand, you’re equipped with all the skills you need to handle this situation. You’re eating well, having started learning how to cook as a young child; you have a lot of practice taking care of yourself and being independent, so that doesn’t affect your schoolwork; you made a budget for yourself before the semester started, so you always have enough money for what you need; you’re well aware of how you learn best and so you make sure that you’re approaching those difficult essays in a way you know is effective for you; you’ve always been comfortable talking to your teachers, who you see as fellow human being, and you know how to advocate for your needs; you’re used to work being a part of life, so it doesn’t feel stressful or overwhelming.

In this same scenario, the Montessori student thrives while the traditional student fails. And why? Because the Montessori student has been learning essential life skills since Kindergarten while the traditional student doesn’t even really know what life skills entail.

Not only that, but the Montessori student has spent their entire education building up their confidence, independence, executive functioning, interpersonal skills, and problem-solving skills. All of which are skills that most other schools either neglect to teach entirely or actively work against.

Speaking of other schools…

Comparing Montessori Education to Other Models

If you’re sending your child to a Montessori school, it’s probably because you believe that test scores and college readiness aren’t the most important parts of learning. However, many parents feel differently, and these parents frequently send their children to schools that focus on college prep and specific types of academic achievement. Let’s see how that’s working out for them.

Multiple studies have shown that test prep/college prep environments do not improve academic outcomes. In fact, these environments and teaching methods have often been shown to increase anxiety in students (to their academic detriment) and to decrease intrinsic motivation and interest in learning.

Despite this, schools focused specifically on college-readiness and particularly the “no excuses” school model have been popular with families who are hoping to give their children the academic advantages they need to find success in college and adulthood.

“No excuses” means exactly what it sounds like it means: you’re going to learn whether you like it or not – no excuses. These schools rose to prominence in the early 2000’s as a way to combat the “achievement gap” seen between white, middle class students and working class students of color (now more often referred to as the “opportunity gap.”) The philosophy behind these schools is based on the problematic belief that, while white students can thrive in Montessori-style learning environments, students of color need to be in strict environments based on tireless, rote work to succeed.

So, the premise is troubling, but do these schools actually work? With all of their focus on achievement, do they actually prepare their students for college and beyond? Do they actually help them succeed?

As you may have already guessed, they don’t. There have been many studies on the academic effects of this type of learning environment, and most show that these methods either have no effect on student success, have a small positive effect on students success that quickly fades over time, or have a negative effect on student success.

Even some of the no-excuses schools that regularly boast overachieving test scores and high college acceptance rates run into trouble once their students go to college…and don’t know what to do. After being in an environment in which their every move was controlled, monitored, and evaluated, they have no intrinsic motivation or independence. They flounder. They fail. They drop out. These schools perpetuate the same social issues they claim to address.

And this is why Montessori education is so important. Montessori isn’t about getting a certain percentage of students into college to show that these students have “succeeded.” Instead, students are given the tools they need to truly succeed, through college and beyond!

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