Articles - Federal Standards & Early Childhood Development

What People Say
I am confident that the education they have received will make them individuals who can and will take the time to think for themselves and inspire and lead others.
Charles Greenhalgh, Parent


For more than 50 years the federal government in the United States has steadily increased it’s 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 (NCLB) 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 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.

Twenty years ago, kids in preschool, kindergarten and even first and second grade spent much of their time playing: building with blocks, drawing or creating imaginary worlds, in their own heads or with classmates. But increasingly, these activities are being abandoned for the didactic instruction typically used in higher grades. In many schools, formal academic education now starts at age 4 or 5. Without this early start, the thinking goes, kids risk falling behind in crucial subjects such as reading and math, and may never catch up. The idea seems obvious: Starting sooner means learning more; the early bird catches the worm. But a growing group of experts, researchers and educators say there is little evidence that this approach improves long-term achievement; in fact, it may have the opposite effect, potentially slowing emotional and cognitive development, causing unnecessary stress and perhaps even souring kids’ desire to learn. One expert, Nancy Carlsson-Paige, a professor emerita of education at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., describes this trend as a “profound misunderstanding of how children learn.” She regularly tours schools, and sees younger students floundering to comprehend instruction: “I’ve seen it many, many times in many, many classrooms — kids being told to sit at a table and just copy letters. They don’t know what they’re doing. It’s heartbreaking.” The stakes in this debate are considerable. As the skeptics of early academic learning see it, that kind of education will fail to produce people who can discover and innovate, and will merely produce people who are likely to be passive consumers of information, followers rather than inventors. Which kind of citizen do we want for the 21st century? In the United States, early academic education has spread rapidly in the past decade. Programs like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have contributed to more testing.

The Waldorf Perspective: The perspective of Waldorf Education would question the underlying assumption that early introduction of academics leads to better performance in later years.

Rudolf Steiner (Founder of Waldorf) saw human society as comprising three distinct spheres of activity 1) the political or ‘rights’ sphere 2) the economic 3) the spiritual/cultural. Each operates most effectively when independent, not impinging on the others. Or being impinged on. For Steiner education is within the cultural sphere and 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.

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 (such as age appropriate material).

EARLIER IS NOT BETTER. Another concern is the ‘earlier the better’ attitude that permeates Federal Standards. These 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, and premature academics can permanently skew healthy development. Throughout the grades Federal Standards seem to demand of the students more performance intellectually than appropriate. The predominant call for the use of computers and other technology in the early grades 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. And 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 free and independent human beings, capable of giving meaning to their lives, with capacities for empathy and morality, a sense of beauty and artistic ability, imagination, gratitude and wonder. plus a keen interest in the world around them. The success of such an education simply cannot be measured by standardized testing and promoting early intellectual attainment.