By Huntington Barclay
Founding father Thomas Jefferson maintained that if the federal government intruded into — and standardized education, diversity in ways of thinking would disappear and democracy would die. Looking at the educational landscape today suggests to many that this may indeed be happening now.
History: For more than 50 years the federal government in the United States has steadily increased its influence in the field of education. The 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was part of Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty. It provided standardized testing and funding only within certain standards of accessibility. For more than four decades it was renewed every five years. Then Bill Clinton expanded its reach.
George Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 reiterated Clinton’s goals and reauthorized the ESEA. NCLB increased the restraints on federal funding and expanded the federal role, requiring standardized annual testing, national report cards and standardized teacher qualifications. Like Clinton’s Goals 2000, but more comprehensive in purview, NCLB paid the states if they would increase early academics, introduce educational technology and use standardized tests to monitor and demonstrate student progress.
In 2010 Secretary of Education Arne Duncan introduced a set of restrictive state standards which came to be known as Common Core State Standards. The standards are well written, well referenced and well intentioned, but they are more than just standards.
CCSS is a detailed list of what students in all grades, from kindergarten through grade 12, should be able to learn and do in mathematics, English, language skills and social studies.
In recent months many parent and teacher groups have complained about the CCSS and this latest intrusion of the federal government and corporations into education. Parents are concerned about the effect the standards are having on their children. The state of Louisiana is suing the department of education and the executive office for seizing control of education without constitutional justification. West Virginia has just repealed it’s acceptance of CCSS.
The Waldorf perspective: The perspective of Waldorf Education would question the underlying assumption of Common Core — that government should play a leading role in determining how children are educated.
Rudolf Steiner (founder of Waldorf) saw human society as comprising three distinct spheres of activity: 1) the political or “rights” sphere; 2) the economic sphere; and 3) the spiritual/cultural sphere. Each operates most effectively when independent, not impinging on the others, or being impinged on.
Steiner placed education within the cultural sphere and thus believed it should be able to operate in total freedom. Government is part of the “rights” sphere and should not intrude into education. Economics, where the immediate, appropriate goal is financial profit, also should not be involved in forming educational policy. In the drafting of Common Core however, both the federal government and prominent corporations were highly-involved. Since the announcement of standards, by no coincidence, many expensive related products have appeared — books, webinars, software programs, apps, courses and blogs — offering help in succeeding with CCSS. The corporate world has too often been eager to profit by what it helped to create.
There are today a number of Waldorf-inspired charter schools that receive government funding. But experience indicates that such arrangements usually lead to increasing external monitoring and controls, as well as rules and prohibitions against the very things that distinguish Waldorf Education.
Earlier is not better: Another concern is the “earlier the better” attitude that permeates Common Core. Government standards stipulate that academic learning should begin in kindergarten and become more intense with each grade. At the heart of Waldorf education is the idea that the child grows in distinct developmental stages. The young child is not ready for demanding intellectual work. Premature academics can permanently skew healthy holistic development. Throughout the grades Common Core seems to demand of the students more performance intellectually than appropriate. The predominant call for the use of computers and other technology from the early grades on is one symptom.
Different standards of success: The focus on standardized tests as a way of measuring the success of the student (and of the teacher) is also problematic. Waldorf education is not only about skill development and the acquisition of knowledge. It is certainly not about educating children to be cogs in a successful national economy competing in the world markets. Waldorf education seeks to help students become and wonder, as well as nurturing a keen interest in the world around them. The success of such an education simply cannot be measured by a standardized test.
Huntington Barclay is a dedicated Waldorf parent. He referenced from an article in Renewal, A Journal for Waldorf Education, vol. 24 #1, by Patrice Maynard.