Enacting Accountability in Innovative Schools: The Sensemaking Strategies of Public Montessori Principals

Borgman, Corey, Administration and Supervision - School of Education and Human Development, University of Virginia
Eddy Spicer, David, CU-Leadshp, Fndns & Pol Studies, University of Virginia

Montessori is the largest alternative pedagogy represented in the public educational system (Debs & Brown, 2017), with over 500 such programs currently operating in the US. The number of publicly funded Montessori schools has doubled over the past two decades, in part due to market-based reforms promoting educational innovation and school choice. Our nation’s simultaneous pursuit of comprehensive, accountability-based reforms presents another promising opportunity for the Montessori movement, as Montessori is one approach that is both innovative and supported by research that demonstrates its potential to improve and equalize student outcomes (Culclasure, Fleming, & Riga, 2018; Daoust, 2004; Lillard et al., 2017).

Fidelity of implementation, however, appears key to the model’s impact (Lillard, 2012; Lillard & Heise, 2017; Lillard et al., 2017), yet Montessori teachers, leaders, and researchers report that accountability requirements pose significant barriers to high-fidelity implementation within the public sector (Suchman, 2008). The leaders of public Montessori schools, therefore, are tasked with the challenge of meeting requirements while striving to maintaining the unique pedagogical identity of their schools.

In light of these challenges, this study attempts to understand how the principals of public Montessori schools negotiate coherence between dual theories of action driving educational improvement. To that end, the study’s research questions explore participants’ personal and professional histories, their interpretations of Montessori pedagogy and accountability policy (as well as perceived interactions between the two), and their activities around collective meaning construction, organizational mobilization, and policy enactment within their schools.

This mixed-methods study applies a descriptive, interpretivist approach to a three-site case study in which participating schools were all Title I, public, district (non-charter), elementary Montessori programs located in the state of South Carolina. Each site, furthermore, was identified by a panel of experts as fully-implementing the Montessori model. At each site, all elementary Montessori teachers completed an instructional practices survey, while principals engaged in a series of three, 90-minute, semi-structured interviews. Survey data was analyzed using descriptive statistics, while interview data was recorded, transcribed, and coded to identify themes within, and patterns between, participating leaders’ responses.

Findings from the study suggest that participants entered leadership with a substantial mismatch between their preparation and the demands of the Montessori principalship. Their sensemaking around issues of accountability policy was significantly constrained by regulative pressures, but also scaffolded by well-aligned resources and supports, all originating at the state and district level. That was not the case, however, when it came to their sensemaking of Montessori pedagogy. In contrast, in the absence of externally provided standards or supports, the particular experiences, social connections, and resources available to, or selected by, participating principals, had substantive influence on their understanding of the Montessori model. Further, the specific understanding at which each arrived influenced the degree to which they were committed to implementing the Montessori model with fidelity or accepting of accountability-driven compromises. Additionally, findings suggest that principals developed the capacity over time to coherently enact policy within their unique context by investing significant time and effort to developing their pedagogical understanding. They described this process as requiring at least 5 years, a finding of relevance given the average principal tenure in South Carolina is 4.5 years (Tran, McCormick, & Nguyen, 2018).

Given these findings, this study offers several recommendations intended to aid researchers, policy makers, and school leaders in the work of promoting high-fidelity public sector Montessori programming. Researchers are encouraged to further examine the ways in which educators’ sensemaking capacity may be complicated when held dually accountable to high-stakes policy and non-traditional pedagogy. Recommendations for policymakers focus on simultaneously prioritizing the hiring of experienced Montessorians into positions of leadership, but also providing clear standards and sufficient supports for principals who are new to the pedagogy. Finally, recommendations for practitioners encourage school leaders to undergo a structured, rigorous, and ongoing process for building deep and nuanced understandings of the Montessori approach. The ideal version of this may be committing to undertake Montessori teacher training during the early years of one’s principalship.

EDD (Doctor of Education)
Montessori, Sensemaking, Accountability, Public
Issued Date: