Journey to chaos

At a Waldorf charter school in Orange County, students concentrate on art and music in the early grades; they don’t study reading or math till third grade.

First-grade foreign language instruction, dance, original literary works, needlepoint and musical instruments were in; computers, videos, textbooks and timed tests were out. Journey deliberately avoided the drill-and-test model most public schools emphasize – delighting parents who sought a curriculum based on stages of child development, not chapters of a workbook.

By last spring, enrollment had grown to 200. Nestled in a cluster of temporary classrooms in back of the Wood Canyon Elementary School, Journey is almost invisible to outsiders, except for a hand-painted sign tacked up on a corner of the campus’s chain-link fence. Intimate and eccentric, the school long has felt more like a private academy than a public elementary school.

But now the five-year charter is up for renewal.

Journey’s scores on state-mandated tests, while not terrible, have lagged behind neighboring schools. Journey’s written charter predicted this; below-average scores in the early grades followed by higher scores after third grade are typical in Waldorf schools.

The panic over test scores has forced out two of the founders and left the school bitterly divided.

About Joanne


  1. Earlier I wrote of the need for alternatives in education. However, not all alternatives are good ones. Waldorf schools are based on the religious cult of Rudolf Steiner, notoriously anti-science and anti-math. They also teach that computers are evil, and a tool of Ahriman (Satan). The Waldorf approach seems free-form, but is subtly authoritarian and dogmatic.

    It’s no wonder that a Waldorf school has low test scores. But it has a right to exist, for parents who believe their children can benefit from it – just like Christian schools for devout Christian parents. And Waldorf academics might suit kids strong in art but weak in science.

  2. Independent George says:

    And Waldorf academics might suit kids strong in art but weak in science.

    But aren’t those the ones who need extra math/science the most?

    The thing that really troubles me about the Waldorf school is that it neglects two things: (1) education is cumulative – the things they’re skipping over at Waldorf are skills they’re going to need later on, and (2) cognitive skills are developed early in childhood; ignoring things like reading and math can result in a permanent skills deficits.

    The state is under no obligation to fund a program known to be defective. If the school is not fulfilling its primary purpose – educating its students – then the state has every right to withdraw the charter, regardless of the support it draws.

  3. Beeman: “But it has a right to exist, for parents who believe their children can benefit from it”

    And if parents want it to continue to exist, *they* should fund its existence. As Independent George wrote,

    “The state is under no obligation to fund a program known to be defective.”

  4. After reading the article, it’s not just the test scores that are making panic: it’s everything. Waldorf is like a cult (though I’m not going to go as far as Beeman’s comment above) in that it takes a certain mindset for the parents and the children for it to work. It’s a wonderful educational system, but it’s not for everyone (just like all the others). It takes its time and achieves its goals, but doesn’t do so right along with the “typical” public school.

    There’s quite a lot of thought about making Tucson’s Waldorf school into a charter school. To do so would require that “Waldorf” no longer be part of the name of the school, as there is an accreditation board that insists that for a school to be a “real” Waldorf school and do “real” Waldorf schooling, it must be a private school. The government money is attractive, but wouldn’t solve all the money problems. The school would attract more students, but they wouldn’t all be “Waldorf”-type students. How many students today watch hardly any television? don’t listen to much popular music? don’t wear clothing with logos or sports teams or other writing? How many of their parents are like that? Not even all of the Waldorf school students today are like that. And that’s just how they behave. How they think is another issue, as it really does take a mindset to make it work.

    I’d say the test scores were a big catalyst for the panic at Journey, but knowing what I do about private school boards and charter schools (and knowing that I am a happy homeschooler, so I don’t need to say I know about public schools) tells me that it’s really hard to run a school on good intentions.

  5. While the Journey school may be (and probably is) defective, Waldorf schools in general do not deserve that label. Deeply flawed, yes, very likely more flawed than public schools, but Waldorfs are right for children of certain mind-set, personality, and aptitude.

    Some people are simply not biologically “wired” for math; others, poetry; others, athletics; and others, being a jack-of-all-trades. To attempt to educate children in non-proficient areas requires skill and delicacy, not brute force. Part of this means knowing when to quit – to not waste effort and resources, and incur resentment.

    And children are individuals, not clockwork clones. How many educators, whether orthodox or alternative, get this point at all? Suppose it has been scientifically proven that 95% of children need to learn subject X by age Y, or else permanent deficits result. That still leaves 5% of us unaccounted! Early bloomers, late bloomers, and all sorts of other possibilities exist.

  6. “The state is under no obligation to fund a program known to be defective.”

    What a revolutionary idea! How about applying it to public schools, the War On (Some) Drugs, Social Security, welfare, etc.?

  7. I had a college friend who spoke and read almost perfect English but grew up in Costa Rica. The school he went to taught the children nothing but English until about third grade. Only then did they introduction Spanish language reading and instruction. The end result achieved was a student body fluent in both English and Spanish. Of course, this program would not be allowed to flourish under the NCLB strict testing.

    I believe this school’s philosophy was the same as Journey’s but just with an arts theme instead of a language theme. They were both putting together a puzzle but starting in the middle instead of with the border, like traditionist do it.

  8. Mike in Texas says:

    Beeman wrote:

    And children are individuals, not clockwork clones. How many educators, whether orthodox or alternative, get this point at all?

    Gee, I’ve been labeled as lazy and incompetent, as have many other teachers who post here, for saying the exact thing as your first sentence. Why do you think so many educators are screaming bloody murder over NCLB?

  9. The charter got renewed.

    A cult? I think not. You’d better review the cult criteria before you make judgements like that. If what you mean by a “cult” is non-Christian belief then you would be half right.

    Math is taught from the start. Reading is delayed a bit in order to integrate letter and word formation with growing drawing and pattern recognition skills. The material is taught, just in a different way than traditional pedagogics.

    Children make their own textbooks, promoting deeper understanding of material.

    Knitting and instruments are taught from the start to enable fine motor and coordination skills.

    The reason the school was divided was because of a disagreement over teaching methods.

    Reading test scores lag for 2 years, then catch up, math scores tend to lead.

    Waldorf education tends not to have a theme, it’s just oriented differently than the “normal” way of doing things. I had a conversation with a teacher about this, and she couldn’t believe that you could teach anything without reading. I guess you need to change your teaching assemblage point to understand the Waldorf method.

    I talked to Rick Hawley about all this a few weeks ago, and he is just as disgusted by NCLB and testing as anyone. Fortunately he doesn’t have to deal with it.