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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Waldorf-Inspired Public Schools Are on the Rise

The John Morse Waldorf Methods School, in Sacramento, California, provides a different vision of education, complete with art, music, and movement.
By Malaika Costello-Dougherty

VIDEO: Waldorf's Integrated Way of Learning

Running Time: 2:46 min.

Editor's Note: In the fall of 2010, John Morse Waldorf-Inspired K-8 School moved to a new building and changed its name to Alice Birney Waldorf-Inspired K-8 School. Principal Cheryl Eining has also retired.

Barbara Warren always thought she was meant to be a teacher, but after a decade working in a low-income elementary school in Sacramento, California, she was just about ready to quit.

Right around the same time, however, the school district decided to convert the school to a Waldorf magnet program. So, instead of giving up, she began a three-year teacher-training program at the nearby Rudolf Steiner College. "It was a lifesaver for me," says Warren. "I found the missing element. I didn't just have to teach curriculum anymore; I got to teach children."

Though the district's initial conversion plans met with resistance from some parents and teachers at the school, Warren continued on the Waldorf path and completed her courses. During the training, she and eight other teachers from her original school branched off to found the John Morse Waldorf Methods School, which opened in a residential neighborhood of Sacramento in 1997.

This K-8 school, one of the first public schools inspired by Waldorf methods, infuses music, art, and movement into lessons and offers student-directed learning and what public schools refer to as looping, a process in which a teacher follows her class, ideally, from first grade through eighth grade.

More than 12 years later, despite budget cuts and possible public school closures in its district, John Morse is flourishing. The program, which district administrators praise as one worth replicating, is engaged in a growth plan supported by local parents, many of whom are looking for an alternative to traditional public education.

Growing with Waldorf

The Waldorf approach to education began in 1919 in Germany, when the owner of the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory asked esoteric philosopher Rudolf Steiner to start a school for the workers' children. Today, there are a thousand Waldorf schools in 91 countries, including 159 in the United States, where Waldorf's growth has been particularly vigorous.

Traditional Waldorf schools are private, but the number of public schools inspired by Steiner's methods is growing, fueled in part by the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act and the charter school movement. In the United States, there are about 44 Waldorf-inspired public schools, most of them K-8 charter schools located in the West.

NCLB requirements mandate that students test at grade level in reading and math, which can result in schools reducing the amount of class time dedicated to art. But Waldorf methods, in sharp contrast to traditional public education, encourage a learning pace dictated by the students themselves and an integration of the arts into lessons.

Despite growing interest and support for public schools based on Waldorf approaches, the movement has its detractors. A spiritual dimension to the Waldorf philosophy has sparked debate -- and inspired at least one lawsuit -- alleging the potential inclusion of religion in the schools.

The philosophy derives from Steiner's idea called anthroposophy, which includes the concept of an unseen world complete with angels hovering above daily life (and the classroom), as well as a commitment to developing the inner self in order to serve the community. Waldorf-inspired public schools, however, don't teach the students anthroposophy, nor do they incorporate spiritual practice into the curriculum.

Yet, even parents familiar with the controversy are drawn to the schools' unique approach to teaching and learning. The John Morse school, which was named in an ongoing lawsuit against the district alleging that religion was taught in the classroom, still boasts wait lists for every grade level. And as Waldorf methods have become more accessible and better understood, more teachers have joined charter schools specifically inspired by Waldorf methods or have adopted some of its approaches for their own classrooms within traditional public schools.

"Waldorf education is becoming contagious," says Betty Staley, a veteran Waldorf educator who has trained public school teachers at Rudolf Steiner College. "A lot of people feel there's got to be another way in education."

How Waldorf Works

John Morse teacher Barbara Warren, who taught first grade last year, starts each school day with the same routine: She shakes each student's hand and makes eye contact with every child before he or she enters class. On a recent spring morning, she asked a few kids about missing teeth, then spent some time calming a nervous student.

"All right," Warren says to the students once they have settled down. "Are we ready, my sweet ones?"

The typical Waldorf class begins with a main lesson that lasts up to two hours and is the most academic part of the day. In her first-grade classroom, Warren alternates between teaching about letters one month and numbers the next, an approach designed to build the students' long-term memory.

Many Ways to Learn:

A first grader draws a bee as part of a math lesson on the number six.

Credit: Bart Nagel

Every number and letter the students study has an associated poem, song, and movement. For example, as they learn about the number six, the first graders form a circle in the back of the class, and Warren draws a honeycomb (a six-sided hexagon) on the floor with chalk. She tells a story about a busy bee. The students then take turns walking around the chalk shape while the rest of the class shouts out multiples of six, all the way up to 72.

In the hallway, the same students talk about a beehive they have on campus. At seven years old, they're thoroughly interested in bees, and that interest fuels their lessons in math. The idea, according to the Waldorf method, is to reach children on their developmental levels while inspiring their imagination, rather than just facilitate rote memorization of multiplication tables.

There are no textbooks in this classroom. Instead, when the students are at their desks, they use lesson books they create and illustrate for each subject. In their math books, they've drawn images of bees with six legs. Later, they sit up at their desks and wave their hands to tell Warren they know the numbers that add up to 20.

Two hours into their math lesson, they are still focused and energetically on task.

The Right Time to Learn

Waldorf education divides childhood into three seven-year stages of development: The first stage, birth to seven years old, is imitation, when children are encouraged to learn through play and movement. The second stage of development, seven to 14 years, is imagination, when students learn through images, art, and stories. At this stage, when the students' emotions are thought to be developing, Waldorf practitioners believe that the stable relationship with one teacher is key. The third stage, from 14 to 21, is inspired thinking, when students become engaged intellectually and are encouraged to analyze information and think critically.

The Waldorf method suggests that teachers time their teaching to coincide with a child's readiness to learn. For instance, they teach writing before reading, which sometimes results in students starting to read as late as the third grade. "We hold back on intellectualizing the child until it's time," says sixth-grade teacher Chris Whetstone.

In "Learning from Rudolf Steiner: The Relevance of Waldorf Education for Urban Public School Reform," a study published in 2008 in the journal Encounter: Education for Meaning and Social Justice, researcher Ida Oberman concluded that the Waldorf approach successfully laid the groundwork for future academics by first engaging students through integrated arts lessons and strong relationships instead of preparing them for standardized tests.

In her assessment of four California public schools that use Waldorf methods, Oberman found that students tested below peers in language arts and math in the second grade, but they matched or tested above their peers in the same subjects by eighth grade. Observers note that second-grade students gain a love of learning through kid-friendly classroom activities that pay off academically in later grades. Oberman says John Morse has also successfully followed California state standards and trained and retained teachers at an impressive level.

Teacher as Family Member

Along with integration of the arts and sensitivity to each student's development, relationships are considered crucial to success in Waldorf education philosophy. Teachers rely heavily on the bond that evolves between them and their students as they move together from the first grade until the students graduate from eighth grade. During this time, students and their families have to work through conflicts with the assigned teacher, and even though such problems inevitably arise, it's uncommon for students to switch to another teacher.

At John Morse, Chris Whetstone has been with his current class for six years. He says that they have become like a family, making it possible for him to intervene early when interpersonal conflicts between students begin to brew. It also gives him an advantage as he works to develop each child's individual character. Parents describe it as a gift to have another adult who gets to know their children over many years and who becomes deeply involved in their development.

"Mr. Whetstone was the best teacher ever," says 22-year-old John Morse graduate Layal Maalouf. "I loved John Morse. Those still count as some of the best years of my life. I built a lasting foundation there."

More Start-Ups on the Way

Last September, the first public high school inspired by Waldorf, the George Washington Carver School of Arts and Science, opened in Sacramento. A charter approved as part of the district's small-schools reform plan, Carver took over a failing high school in a poor neighborhood on the edge of the city. Local children, along with students from John Morse and a private Waldorf school, make up the high school's student body. (There's also a private Waldorf high school in the area, which has allowed local students in the program to continue the traditional Waldorf education track from kindergarten to the end of high school.)

With a Rudolf Steiner teacher-training college in the area and many community parents familiar with Waldorf elementary schools, the new high school received early and enthusiastic support. Still, supporters and participants in the school consider Carver an experiment because adapting Waldorf methods to a public high school is uncharted territory for them.

In a near mirror image of the John Morse morning routine, teachers at Carver meet their students at the door each day, shake their hands, and look them in the eye. Teachers integrate the arts into the curriculum, and students create their own lesson books for each subject. Using the classic Waldorf developmental approach, students study drama in the ninth grade to reflect where they are emotionally.

Other methods used by Waldorf schools, such as looping and a daily centerpiece lesson, are not as practical in high school, so the teachers are interpreting these tactics even more broadly. George Washington Carver principal Allegra Alessandri, who worked for private Waldorf schools for 20 years, says they're adapting looping so that each student will have the same homeroom teacher for four years to create a lasting bond with that individual. In fall 2009, ninth- and tenth-grade students will start a two-year Waldorf core class that integrates subjects such as art history, poetry, art, drama, and gardening.

"What we're doing by taking Waldorf to the public sector is developing a reform movement," says Alessandri, who was a founder of the new high school. "We're changing the way the district looks at teaching and the way it looks at success."

Malaika Costello-Dougherty is a senior editor at Edutopia.

Go to "Waldorf Methods You Can Use in Your Classroom" and "Waldorf-Inspired Curriculum Materials."

The Association of Waldorf Schools of North America owns the registered service mark of Waldorf for educational services. The AWSNA maintains that its service mark should be used only in the name of schools, institutions, or organizations that have received express permission from AWSNA to represent themselves with Waldorf in their names or subtitles. Guidelines for affiliation with the AWSNA are available from the association.

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Dan Dugan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Malaika Costello-Dougherty wrote "Waldorf-inspired public schools, however, don't teach the students anthroposophy, nor do they incorporate spiritual practice into the curriculum." That's what both public and private Waldorf schools will tell you, but unfortunately it isn't true.
Listen to an independent researcher's take on it:
"Teachers in the Waldorf School argued that it used Steiner's method of education, but did not teach the content of anthroposophy. To an extent this is true, but anthroposophical underpinnings guide much of what goes on in the school, making the school like a private religious school, and not all parents realize this. Anthroposophy is an esoteric belief system created by Rudolf Steiner. Rudolf Steiner thus has a profound effect on the school, and to understand its culture we need to study the myths surrounding the man, his anthroposophy movement, his "threefold" vision for society, and his methods of schooling."
[Henry, Mary E. School Cultures: Universes of Meaning in Private Schools. (Washington State University) Norwood, New Jersey: Ablex Publishing Corp. 1993, p. 70]
-Dan Dugan, Secretary, PLANS Inc.

Thebee's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As mostly is the case, Mr. Dugan of PLANS below mixes up arguments about independent Waldorf schools with possible arguments about public Waldorf methods charter schools.

The study from 1993 quoted by Mr.Dugan, that refers to Waldorf schools proper, was published when there probably were not yet any Waldorf methods charter schools in California. A charter school law was only passed in California in 1992.

At Waldorf methods charter schools, special care has been taken not to violate the the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, that constitutes the basis for the litigation since ten years by Mr. Dugan and his group. That does not bother Mr. Dugan much.

For a description of and some comments on the actual spiced up argumentation and myths about anthroposophy and Waldorf education published by Mr. Dugan and his group at his site, behind his here civilized and seemingly academic argumentation, to achieve the otherwise not very exciting goals by him and his group, see

- Americans for Waldorf education informing the public about PLANS Inc. and
- Myths about Waldorf education and anthroposophy.

Usually, postings by Mr. Dugan in comments sections of Waldorf related articles are followed by a caravan of comment by supporters of his WC-group, that try to defame and bad mouth Waldorf education, baited by its argumentation and myths, to exploit such articles for the group's purposes. The pages described addresses their arguments.

Thebee
Cowebmaster of Waldorf Answers and Americans for Waldorf Education

Dan Dugan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

TheBee wrote: "At Waldorf methods charter schools, special care has been taken not to violate the the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution." I wonder how a Waldorf parent in Sweden can write so confidently about California. I myself have visited many Waldorf charter schools, and I have found them little different from private Waldorf schools. They'll take "God" out of a prayer, perhaps substituting "the light within," but a prayer is still a prayer. The most important thing to understand is that all Waldorf teacher training comes from Anthroposophical seminaries. There is no parallel secular Waldorf education movement. No teacher training, no professional societies, no publications. It's all Anthroposophy.

Izzy Gardon's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Anthroposophy is not present within public Waldorf method schools. Teachers and all faculty go out of their way not to incorporate Rudolf Steiner's ideals that do not coincide with what is legally acceptable as well as what is educationally within the guidelines for a public school. Public waldorf education is based on just a few of Steiner's ideas the two most important ones being the arts and development. Myself being a proud product of a public Waldorf education, I can say without any hesitation that I did not whatsoever learn the principles or ideas of Anthroposophy. There is no equivocation in public waldorf schools, anyone that makes the claim that Anthroposophy is present within public waldorf education has obviously not been to a public waldorf school, or just took their short experiences of observing out of complete context. Some concepts in Waldorf education may be foreign to some people, but by no stretch of the imagination are those concepts based on Anthroposophy - at least in a public Waldorf educational system. Waldorf education emphasizes creativity, individuality, and testing one's self, all concepts which have caused me to excel in my life, and given me an utmost advantage above my generational peers.

Dan Dugan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

"Anthroposophy is not present within public Waldorf method schools. Teachers and all faculty go out of their way not to incorporate Rudolf Steiner's ideals that do not coincide with what is legally acceptable as well as what is educationally within the guidelines for a public school. Public waldorf education is based on just a few of Steiner's ideas the two most important ones being the arts and development."

You may have been lucky to attend a more secular public Waldorf, they do vary. What school did you go to? Did you recite a morning verse together? What did they teach you about the phenomena of color--was it Goethe or Newton? How about the function of the heart, what did they say about that? Did you do Eurythmy?

Some of the public Waldorfs I've visited have been indistinguishable from private Waldorf--down to the luminist paintings of Michael on the wall. Teachers have written in movement publications about how they can get away with almost everything in traditional Waldorf. A teacher at the charter Debra Snell helped start told her "all the teachers except Barbara are Anthroposophists, and she is coming to Anthroposophy."

christina Garay Lohry's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have been a teacher now for 17 years, training and teaching in both traditional public schools and Waldorf inspired schools. I believe Rudolf Steiner's skillful curriculum that matches child development with appropriate content and methodology are unmatched in their effectiveness. Teaching children through a Waldorf inspired curriculum was phenomenal for me as a teacher, as well as the children. I did my training with Beth Sutton: The Enki Method. She took away the limitations of Anthroposophy and broadened the principles to include and honor all cultures, all beliefs. If charter schools can truly use the Waldorf Curriculum without being driven by linear and limited views of teachers who feel their personal spiritual views are 'the truth', we can make great progress.

christina Garay Lohry's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have been a teacher now for 17 years, training and teaching in both traditional public schools and Waldorf inspired schools. I believe Rudolf Steiner's skillful curriculum that matches child development with appropriate content and methodology are unmatched in their effectiveness. Teaching children through a Waldorf inspired curriculum was phenomenal for me as a teacher, as well as the children. I did my training with Beth Sutton: The Enki Method. She took away the limitations of Anthroposophy and broadened the principles to include and honor all cultures, all beliefs. If charter schools can truly use the Waldorf Curriculum without being driven by linear and limited views of teachers who feel their personal spiritual views are 'the truth', we can make great progress.

Louis Bullard's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Once again, Dan, you are using language to mislead those who would listen to your mistrust of Waldorf education. "Seminaries" implies a religious focus in one's studies. Anthroposophy is a philosophy. All teachers ascribe to a philosophy on which their teaching is based. In my 16 years of teaching, I've met more trained Waldorf teachers and administrators who understand the difference between religion, education and philosophy and keep each in their proper places. I've also run across a handful of vocal detractors who cannot tell the difference.

Angela Buckley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It's a bit sad (and perhaps obsessive-compulsive) that Dan Dugan feels this ongoing need to bash Waldorf education. It's unfortunate, too, that his comment here is a mixture of personal bias and twisted language. Waldorf teacher training programs are not "seminaries." There is no prayer in Waldorf schools--there are verses and poems, and yes, words like "God" are eliminated from them in charter schools. Most of what teachers learn in teacher training is, thankfully, how to teach. And how to teach very well.

Also, it's pretty ridiculous that Mr. Dugan tries to paint himself as any kind of expert. I would be interested in knowing exactly what Waldorf charter schools he actually has visited, when, and for how long. I'm at one every single day, and I must say that although no school is perfect, the problems in Waldorf education in general and in charter schools specifically have nothing whatsoever to do with the silly imaginings of Dan Dugan.

Louis Bullard's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

An "Independent Researcher"? That should make all the difference. Who is this person? Who funded her "research"and and what are her qualifications? And why should we accept her (or your) research above any other? Waldorf schools number somewhere around a thousand world-wide. Within those schools are tens of thousands of teachers who accept Anthroposophy as a philosophy. You accept the word and research of a small group of dissatisfied individuals and researchers and berate those who do not agree with their or your points of view. From your previous posts from your various outlets, you constantly find justification in calling the majority of us brainwashed. Your use of twisted quotes, questionable research and emotional arguments just do not hold for those of us who are not brainwashed as you would claim.

Your researcher, by the way, fairly accurately characterizes Waldorf education. That is until she assumes that religion, no philosophy, is the guiding impulse in Waldorf schools. She loses her credibility after that.

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