How compatible are the scales with Montessori philosophy?

We often have questions inquiring about the suitability of using the Environmental Ratings Scales in Montessori programs. This is an issue pertinent to all programs with a strongly focused philosophy. The scales are based on a comprehensive, broad-based definition of quality in early childhood programs. This definition has three major components: protection (health and safety), building relationships (social-emotional development, independence, discipline, interaction, etc.), and stimulation through hands-on activities (nature/science, language, math, art, sand/water, gross and fine motor activities, etc.).

These scales have been used in a wide variety of programs, including many Montessori programs, Reggio (including those in an Italian study of quality), as well as those following NAEYC guidelines. We have found that quality rests on how well the program meets the three major components of high quality early childhood programs, rather than on the program's philosophy. However, it is true that a program's philosophy usually focuses more on one aspect of quality than another.

When an accurate, knowledgeable assessment is made with the scales, program strengths and weaknesses usually become apparent. Thus, a program that values creativity above all else may find that it needs to concentrate more on cleanliness and order to strike a good balance. A program that stresses social development may find that it needs to pay more attention to cognitive skills.

Montessori programs differ widely in their inclusion of art, dramatic play, and blocks along with their traditional materials. Montessori staff also have varying educational backgrounds. The Early Head Start study included a number of Montessori programs, and the directors of that project discussed how to use the scales to score the Montessori programs accurately. Giving credit for some traditional Montessori activities in categories such as water play, dramatic play, and block play, because of the materials involved, may be open to question. For example, the Montessori daily living activities (such as table washing) are performed as isolated activities following a set pattern, and not in the context of dramatic play initiated by the child. The validity of calling such an activity "dramatic play" is questionable, since it has a very different purpose and may result in quite different learning. Thus, giving credit for such activities would probably be disallowed when scoring.

Programs that consistently apply the Montessori method often do very well on many of the items on the scales, especially in the activities section of the ECERS and in some of the language items (See ECERS items #17, "Using language to develop reasoning skills," which is typically a low-scoring item in preschools, and #25, "Nature/science" and #26, "Math/number.")

It is not believed that the scales penalize Montessori programs. All programs, no matter what their philosophies emphasize, should meet children's needs in a variety of ways.