Does Waldorf Work?


One of the big concerns Waldorf educators hear from prospective parents is about the school’s lack of testing. How will we know our children are being well educated? What if they can’t keep up with their hard-driven peers after graduation?

The underlying question is, “How do we know this theory of education works?”

Nov/Dec 2011 Harvard Education Letter reports that: “Waldorf students tend to score considerably below district peers in the early years of elementary education and equal to, or… considerably above, district peers by eighth grade.”

When it comes to alternative education with positive results, The Waldorf school system is not the only educational microcosm to study. Finnish school’s have been a popular news topic lately as U.S. educators try to tease out how their system, like Waldorf, which lacks testing and rigorous early academics, can outperform the U.S. on the very tests it seem to shun.

Findland’s average scores on 2009 PISA tests – ranks them #3 in the world. The U.S. average scores equal rank #17.

The New York Times, in a December article, discussed highlights of a lecture given at a NYC private school by Dr. Pasi Sahlberg, Director General of the Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation in Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture.

David Castillo Dominici

In summary, he discussed the Finnish philosophy which, according to the Times reporter Jenny Anderson, “scorns almost all standardized testing before age 16 and discourages homework, and it is seen as a violation of children’s rights for them to start school any sooner than 7.”

To Waldorf parents, these values will ring true, as will the values underpinned in Sahlberg’s quote about why tactics from the Finnish education system will not work if bolted onto U.S. public school policy.

“You know, one big difference in thinking about education and the whole discourse is that in the U.S. it’s based on a belief in competition,” Sahlberg said. “In my country, we are in education because we believe in cooperation and sharing. Cooperation is a core starting point for growth.”

This quote, from an NPR article covering the lecture at, is followed by an analysis of the key factors to Finland’s education success.  The culture in Waldorf education mirrors these values:

Teachers are in charge: At Waldorf schools, teachers run the school.  The same is true in Finland. “We have very carefully kept the business of education in the hands of educators,” says Sahlberg.

No tests in early grades: Children in elementary school are rarely tested in Waldorf. Sahlberg says, “Finns don’t believe you can reliably measure the essence of learning.”

Teaching is a valued profession: Waldorf schools could not exist without long-term committed teachers and the Waldorf system focuses on raising money to give staff free continuing education opportunities. Henna Virkkunen, Finland’s Minister of Education says, “In Finland, we think that teachers are key for the future and it’s a very important profession—and that’s why all of the young, talented people want to become teachers.”

Teachers are trusted to teach: Like in Waldorf schools, “Teachers in Finland can choose their own teaching methods and materials. They are experts of their own work, and they test their own pupils,” Virkkunen said.

So when parents ask if education systems like these can work, the answer is yes. But don’t take our word for it – go forth and read the research!

3 thoughts on “Does Waldorf Work?

  1. Thanks for interesting post on the similarities in the finnish public school system and waldorf principles. Living in neighbor Sweden and parent to two daughters in waldorf education I wish my government could be more influenced by the educational success of Finland.

    Instead in a western consensus around the need for testing, central directives and the near religious believe in IT we seem to copy Americas failures in our public education. Waldorf schools, who were among the first to operate when alternatives to public schools were introduced, can no longer decide over the use of testing or the curriculum to a point where the uniqness is threathened.

    The government seems to ignore the near universal praise for finnish schools, Sir Ken Robinson, Daniel H Pink, Seth Godin et al´s convincing references to scientific findings on intrisic drive, divergent/creative thinking and neuroscience.

    In Sweden (and Finland) waldorf school(or any other private school) are free to the pupils and paid by the public in a fixed allowance based on cost for local public school.

    Yet we have a hard time convincing parents to learn more and choose our schools when passivly accepting the allocated public school give you the right to complaining where as an active choice makes you responsible. So we keep looking for enlighted and brave parents 😉

    Jan Bergman

  2. Great questions Jamie. Here’s the list.
    China and Korea were #1 and #2 in 2009. I need to do research to find out their methods.

    I believe (with some facts to back this via reading experience) that the reason the U.S. is obsessed with Finnish (and to some degree other Norwegian) models is because 1) They are Western cultures (although socialist, which is a big reason why Sahlberg insists their program tenets will never work here in public schools). 2) They have consistently scored high for the last 10 years. 3) They turned their system around, which had poor scores on similar tests in the 70s.

    Of course the differences are great, even beyond socialism including an ethnically and financially homogeneous population. And a small population to boot. Approx. the size of Kentucky.

    So much of the debate becomes about the applicability in the U.S. public system and not even about the why these methods are effective. What Waldorf appreciates about this speculation is the why behind their success — the values of the Finnish system are alive and well in Waldorf education.

    Thanks for weighing in!

  3. Finland ranks third in PISA test scores (perhaps an arbitrary method anyway?). Out of curiosity, who is first and second? How do their schools compare to Waldorf and/or US public schools?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *