• Waldorf Education in Public Schools

    Educators adopt and adapt this developmental, arts-rich approach.

    In the quest to fix ailing schools, should we slow down to move faster?

    Just as the handmade, home-farmed foodie movement is transforming how consumers view processed food, is education’s equivalent—Waldorf-style schooling that favors hands-on art and personal exploration while shunning textbooks and technology—just what school reform needs?

    It sounds counterintuitive for struggling students to spend class time on, say, knitting and drawing. Yet, a small but growing number of public schools are embracing Waldorf methods in hopes of engaging students in ways advocates say traditional approaches do not—and raising test scores along the way.

    Once a private school model chosen by mostly middle- and upper-middle-class families for its child-centered, developmental approach to schooling, the number of Waldorf-inspired public schools has risen quickly, from a dozen in 2000 to 45 in 2010, with another 30 expected to open this year, according to the Alliance for Public Waldorf Education, a non-profit membership group for public Waldorf schools. Many are charter schools.

    “A lot of parents and educators are recognizing that what we are doing in traditional education is not working for kids,” says Caleb Buckley, board president of the alliance and director of the Yuba River Charter School. Founded in Nevada City, Calif., in 1994, Yuba River was the first public Waldorf charter school to open in the United States.

    While most Waldorf schools are elementaries, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation helped launch the first public Waldorf high school four years ago at the George Washington Carver School of Arts and Science in Sacramento, Calif., replacing a failed America’s Choice program in the building.

    Test scores have since risen dramatically: In 2008, 67 percent of 11th-graders scored “far below basic” or “below basic” in English; in 2011, just 12 percent did. Teachers are happier as well, says principal Allegra Allesandri. While many teachers spent the summer boning up on content, Allesandri’s teachers also honed skills in bookbinding, painting, and felting. Many Carver faculty gatherings include singing in harmony and playing games. “Those skills, which might be about singing, are also about working together successfully,” she says.

    Ida Oberman, author of The Waldorf Movement in Education from European Cradle to American Crucible 1919–2008, is so convinced that Waldorf holds answers for urban school reform that in August she launched a Waldorf-inspired school of her own: the Community School for Creative Education in nearby Oakland, Calif.

    “We know about the achievement gap but haven’t figured out how to close it,” insists Oberman. She says pressure to raise test scores in poor, underperforming districts has led to a narrowing of curriculum, leaving students who may lack rich home environments with even less to engage them. “No Child Left Behind has failed,” she says, asking, “What do we do to keep the children in this system, learning and growing?”

    “Head, Heart, Hands”

    While Waldorf education as conceived in 1919 by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner brought a Christian and spiritual bent to developmental learning, U.S. schools have focused more on its pedagogical methods. Waldorf teachers use an experiential, arts-rich approach—“a head, heart, hands” philosophy—that includes singing, reciting poems and stories, and handwork, from weaving to woodwork.

    Waldorf education, which often requires families to limit TV watching and electronics at home, considers a child’s growth to take place in three seven-year stages from birth to age 21. Each stage is characterized by developmental phases—imitation, imagination, and the search for truth—that inform curriculum. The goal is to match learning with natural development, spurring a kind of organic compounding of children’s innate drive to make sense of their worlds.