Letter To Editor re Antlantic Monthly Article

By Kathleen Sutphen

October 1999

Todd Oppenheimer in “Schooling the Imagination (Atlantic 9/99) gives us a lovely, but vastly inaccurate picture of Waldorf Education, particularly as it exists in the public school sector where it has attained an illegal foothold over the past few years. Oppenheimer is effusive in his praise of the allegedly positive influence Waldorf pedagogy has had on juvenile offenders at the Thomas E. Mathews Community School in Yuba County, California. Unfortunately, Oppenheimer failed to do his homework before writing this article. His information is entirely anecdotal, much of it supplied by diehard Waldorf enthusiasts currently working at the Mathews school site.

I worked at this school for seven years over the course of 1989 – 1997. Despite being chosen Employee of the Month and receiving several national awards and grants, including Teacher of the Year (Continental Cablevision – 1991), I was subjected to ongoing harassment and character assassination after I began to question the legality of Anthroposophical religious indoctrination in staff training sessions led by uneducated, unaccredited Anthroposophists brought over from Europe. Both staff and students were subjected to nonacademic, occultist activities through the Waldorf training and pedagogy adopted from the Rudolf Steiner College, a nonaccredited Anthroposophical religious institution located in Fair Oaks, California. I quit in frustration over the academic dearth of Waldorf education and grief at watching our nation’s most needy students being subjected to occultist religious indoctrination in the place of a sound academic program.

Mr. Oppenheimer neglected to include in his article any concrete measurement of Waldorf’s effect on the juvenile offenders that attend Mathews School. He failed to mention that last spring’s STAR test scores show these students tested among the lowest in the state of California. After more than 6 years of Waldorf inclusion most of the students are still functionally illiterate. Few can read for meaning, if, indeed, they can read at all. Few can perform more than the most elementary mathematical computations. Criminal recidivism is extraordinarily high. Physical altercations on campus are a common occurrence. Students continue to come to school under the influence of drugs and truancy is common. Many of the older students look upon their education at Mathews School as a joke.

I wonder why Mr. Oppenheimer didn’t ask how many of Mathews’ students were able to obtain their high school diploma since the Waldorf pedagogy was adopted. The answer is zero or very close to it. Mathews’ students leave the campus with little or no increase in academic skills. They do not have the ability to pass the GED. Instead of learning minimal competencies to pass the GED or read on the most elementary level, these students are copying their lesson books off the blackboard; playing plastic recorders; and chanting anthroposophical verses.

Mr. Oppenheimer states, “The books are filled with students’ careful records of field trips and classroom experiments; impressions of the teachers’ regular oral presentations; and, in more advanced classes, syntheses of what the students have read in primary sources.”

Did Mr. Oppenheimer compare student books? If he had done so, he would have found that most contain almost identical information, word for word. The books are seductive in their beauty, but they are not original creations. Even the artwork is largely copied and adheres to occultist color exercises designed to encourage the incarnation of the soul per Anthroposophical religious belief.

And, finally, why didn’t Mr. Oppenheimer ask about staff turnover or attempt to talk to teachers that quit in frustration over the unsound academic principles being practiced on these, our most needy students? Did he inquire as to whether any staff had protested the religious indoctrination subtly infused in Waldorf teacher training? Did he check to see if current teachers had attended state approved certification and teacher training programs prior to their hiring? Did he speak to any parents?

Mr. Oppenheimer could have conducted an in-depth journalistic investigation and given both sides of the picture. Sure, Waldorf is pretty and a feel good method, but is it doing these students any measurable good? The key elements as I see it are academic growth and decreased criminal recividism. Pretty pictures, music played on plastic recorders, and copied text serve only to set these students farther apart from mainstream society.

Unfortunately, Mr. Oppenheimer provided yet another inaccurate picture of Waldorf education. His naivet and inaccurate platitudes do an injustice to the field of journalism, public education, and the plight of Mathews at-risk students that are denied what may be their last opportunity to receive a public school education. Instead of an accurate look at Waldorf education, Oppenheimer merely composed an persuasive advertisement.

Kathleen Sutphen