Increasingly, however, there is less waiting and more action as public Waldorf leaders, aware that poor scores can threaten their existence, alter approaches to improve test results (see sidebar “Adapting Waldorf in Rural Hawaii”).
When test scores dropped at the Waldorf-inspired Novato Charter School in California, for instance, the district superintendent came right to the point, recalls Rachael Bishop, the school’s director. “She said, ‘You have to come up 45 points by next year. No pressure.’”
Bishop, trained as a public school administrator, pulled out binders of state standards, to the dismay of her staff. What began with denial and pushback from faculty, however, turned into a realization that what they already did fit standards, she says; they just needed to be more explicit. For example, second-graders who were making their own pentagons for a class exercise weren’t being taught the word “pentagon” in a way that they would recognize the word on the state tests. “We know the pentagon will be on the second-grade test,” she says, “so now the teacher will write ‘pentagon’ on the board, and the kids get to the test and say, ‘Oh I’ve seen that before.’ ”
Their efforts worked. Scores rose 91 points. But Bishop has kept at it, seeking to raise middle school math scores by doing the sacrosanct: buying textbooks. They still do project-based activities, start class with a verse perhaps by Albert Einstein, and end by thanking the teacher. But Bishop says the texts and 40-minute daily math lessons “look more like public school.”
Reform Challenge: Oakland
It’s one thing to tweak Waldorf methods in suburban Novato and another to lean on Waldorf in districts where students may be behind academically. Oberman, whose school just opened with 103 children in grades K–3 in six classrooms of the Howard Elementary School in Oakland, has the added challenge of serving an immigrant population. English is not the primary language spoken at home, and because many are extremely poor, she says, they are also transient.
“We are adjusting more radically than many Waldorf-inspired charters,” says Oberman. She wants to use stories, poetry, and play to enrich but also to equip children academically so that if they transfer elsewhere they will not be behind.
Teachers, she says, “will not assume the child gets it” but will regularly assess in a Waldorf way. When students write in their Main Lesson books, they will underline a long-A sound, for example, write the word separately, and use it in their own made-up story, all while thinking about, say, a poem they have learned to recite. And where traditional Waldorf does only whole-group instruction, Oberman will do differentiation through centers. “We have the Center of the King, the Center of the Queen, the Center of Angels,” she says.
Parent Aida Salazar, who knew nothing about Waldorf, transferred her six-year-old daughter to Oberman’s school because of the creative approach. “I was really dismayed by all of the worksheets my daughter was bringing home in kindergarten. It seemed an illogical way to get to a child’s mind,” she says.
“An Experiment in the Public Sphere”
Waldorf may be foreign to many parents and educators, but Oberman insists it is “a long-untapped resource in urban school reform.” Can Waldorf’s developmental philosophy and tangible elements—looping, creative hands-on learning, and respect for a child’s innate abilities—change options for poor students?
Robert C. Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, whose Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS) measures quality instruction in preK–5 classrooms, says research suggests that disadvantaged students struggle as much with self-regulation and relationship skills as with literacy and math skills. But, he cautions, little is known about Waldorf’s effectiveness for these students—or how it can address the critical need for concrete academic instruction.
“We know that kids don’t learn to decode reading and they don’t learn to understand algebra without instruction,” he says. “It strikes me that it is potentially the case that immersing kids in a very intensive and developmentally focused experience may help them build a lot of capacities that will help them in the long term—but we don’t know that.”
“It’s an experiment in the public sphere, and I don’t think anyone right now can predict if it will work,” agrees Bonnie River, chair of Hybrid Programs at Rudolf Steiner College in Fair Oaks, Calif., which focuses on Waldorf teacher training.
River sees more traditional teachers bringing Waldorf approaches into their classrooms. Some training programs are oversubscribed. But River, who has been in education for more than 40 years, has seen the pendulum swing back and forth. Will reformers expect results too quickly? The payoff in Waldorf comes when children reach adulthood, she says. “It may be a little bit too long [for some] to wait.”
Laura Pappano is an education journalist based in New Haven, Conn. She is the author of Inside School Turnarounds: Urgent Hopes, Unfolding Stories (Harvard Education Press, 2010).