Ensuring equitable access to high-quality early education for families from all racial, ethnic, and income backgrounds is a critical component for addressing systemic racism and inequality within the public education system. This study examined one piece of this issue by investigating access to public Montessori pre-K, as well as barriers that may hinder equitable access. Barriers to accessing high-quality educational opportunities often disproportionally affect Black and Latine families and families experiencing poverty, and these barriers may contribute to what researchers call the “opportunity gap.” While past research has described the impacts of educational disparities as “achievement gaps,” more recent research focuses on differential opportunities that explain observed differences in achievement between groups.[i] The opportunity gap refers to how social and systemic structures that are out of the control of individual parents or children determine opportunities, and how systemic differences in opportunities linked to race, ethnicity, and family income lead to differences in outcomes.[ii] Understanding gaps in opportunities allows us to pay closer attention to the conditions and barriers students face throughout the education system, and places responsibility on the inequitable systems for not providing appropriate opportunities for all students to thrive.
Early childhood education (ECE), which includes pre-K, may represent a particularly important opportunity gap because it is more racially and ethnically segregated than any other grade, including Kindergarten.[iii] Learning more about the recruitment and enrollment practices of public Montessori pre-K programs may provide a window into how enrollment policies for public education programs using progressive pedagogies, which focus on experiential learning, critical thinking, problem solving, and both independent and collaborative learning, function overall.[iv] Although states and communities are investing in various models of progressive pedagogies in addition to Montessori (e.g., Reggio Emilia, Waldorf), we chose to focus on Montessori because it is one of the most prominent progressive curricula used in public pre-K programs and its origins lie in promoting equitable learning opportunities through individualized teaching practices that can support children from all backgrounds.[v],[vi] In addition, while public K-12 Montessori schools have high levels of racial and socioeconomic diversity,[vii] public pre-K Montessori programs have unique admission processes due to demand typically exceeding the supply of available pre-K slots. An examination of these admission processes is needed to understand whether these policies create barriers to access for some families.
While many public Montessori pre-K programs or the school districts in which they operate report that students are admitted through a random lottery process, initial efforts to study these programs indicated that certain lottery policies may create barriers to access. In 2017, the Brady Education Foundation Montessori Initiative Network (BEFMIN) set out to conduct a randomized controlled trial (RCT) that compared children who were selected to attend public Montessori using a lottery system to children who applied but were placed on a waiting list. The goal of that study was to assess the efficacy of Montessori practices to diminish racial and income achievement gaps. However, BEFMIN experienced challenges around identifying a sufficient sample of racially and economically diverse students who were entered into a random lottery to receive a Montessori pre-K slot. Many programs granted so many exceptions to their lottery that almost no students were actually admitted at random; in other programs, fewer families applied than there were slots, so no lottery was necessary. Because of these challenges, we designed a policy-focused case study to examine the ways in which program- or district-level recruitment and enrollment policies might limit families’ access to public Montessori pre-K.
Understanding barriers is particularly important for learning more about equitable access to specialized pre-K programs. During recruitment for the BEFMIN RCT, we identified several barriers to accessing public Montessori pre-K programs, including priority status for siblings, neighborhood residents, and children of staff; a lack of targeted recruitment practices for families from underserved communities; and affordability. Although the programs recruited for the RCT and this study were free for all starting in Kindergarten, many still charged tuition at the pre-K level and had limited financial aid available for families. Given the origins of the Montessori pedagogy and existing disparities within the educational system, questions of equity should be at the center of policy development for accessing public Montessori pre-K.
To begin to understand whether and how public Montessori pre-K enrollment policies might create barriers to access for underrepresented families—particularly Black and Latine families and families experiencing poverty—this study started with a landscape scan of all public Montessori pre-K programs. This scan allowed us to learn more about the characteristics of who these programs serve, where they are located, and their recruitment and enrollment practices. We located the public Montessori pre-K programs identified in the landscape scan in national administrative data sets to learn more about the communities that include these programs. Then, we fielded a survey of public Montessori pre-K programs identified from the landscape scan to delve deeper into the programs’ policies. Finally, we conducted interviews with families from the communities served by the surveyed pre-K programs to learn about their perceptions of public Montessori pre-K, experiences enrolling in these programs, and experiences enrolling in other ECE options (if applicable). This data collection provided a snapshot, or case study, of the different recruitment and enrollment practices of public Montessori pre-K programs and how they affect families’ access to these early education options.
 Latine is a gender-neutral version of Latino and Latina.
 The BEFMIN includes Child Trends, The Riley Institute at Furman University, and the University of Kansas Center for Montessori Research.
[i] Milner, R. H. (2012). Beyond a Test Score: Explaining Opportunity Gaps in Educational Practice. Journal of Black Studies 43 (6), 693-718. DOI: 10.1177/0021934712442539
[ii] Mooney, T. (May 11, 2018). “Why We Say “Opportunity Gap” Instead of “Achievement Gap.” Teach for America, Top Issues. https://www.teachforamerica.org/stories/why-we-say-opportunity-gap-instead-of-achievement-gap.
[iii] Urban Institute. (2019). Segregated from the start: Comparing segregation in early childhood and K-12 education. https://www.urban.org/features/segregated-start
[iv] Debs, M. (2019). Diverse families, desirable schools. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
[vi] American Montessori Society. (2019). History of Montessori [webpage]. Retrieved March 5, 2021 from https://amshq.org/About-Montessori/History-of-Montessori
[vii] Debs, M., 2019.
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