Talking It Over
Here are some statements made by and for mothers who have sent their kids to Steiner/Waldorf schools; there are also statements by mothers who are thinking of choosing such schools for their kids. Most of the statements come from online discussions at mumsnet [http://www.mumsnet.com/]. Like most postings in online discussions, they were quickly written with little concern for spelling, grammar, etc. I have done a little light editing, but the substance of these messages — not the form — is what is important.
— Roger Rawlings
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For the first, long set of comments,
"They [Waldorf or Steiner schools] actively discourage formal learning below 7yo [i.e., age seven] — and yet we all know some kids are ready for it and most are capable before then. They seem overly obsessed (imvho) with the evils of things like TV, pop culture and non-organic food.
"They have some weird religious beliefs — arguably racist or elitist; they seem to have produced some high profile educational failures. David Gilmour's Telegraph article was quite compelling for me."
"The controversy comes from the fact that many of the teachers believe in something called anthroposophy, which is very very hard to pin down but there is a belief in reincarnation, past lives, that sort of thing.
"So while the children may be being dealt with in a particular way that sounds 'nice', the teachers might be coming at it from an anthroposophical view. Where there is a problem like bullying, this can lead to massive problems. Parents are not kept in the loop, they can be almost completely ignorant of the religious aspects.
"When it works, it seems ideal. When it doesn't, there have been accusations of emotional abuse to both pupils and parents, in a similar way to within a cult."
"The underlying philosophy which the schools are based on is not an educational philosophy as such, more of a religion, with a belief in reincarnation, gnomes, demons, etc. The schools and teachers vary in how much of this they teach, but it does underlie choices that are made in the schools.
"Parents who have been unhappy about Steiner schools are often very angry that they have not been told the truth about this philosophy and the effects it has had on their childrens education.
"eg children are not taught to read until the age of 7, because this is when they get their adult teeth. Stories about gnomes are told as if they are fact rather than fantasy, children are not stopped from bullying each other because of issues to do with reincarnation."
"Parents who choose Steiner tend to be quite alternative (eg accepting of homeopathy, suspicious of science, value the natural world highly) or are wealthy and would like to be more alternative; or they like Montessori/other non-standard systems and see a lot of parallels, but can't find anything beyond nursery level education other than Steiner; or they have a child with special needs like mild Asperger's and see it as a more appropriate way to educate their child.
"I think very few go into Steiner with an appreciation of what anthroposophy is, and they are not encouraged to find out."
"Those who have a problem with Steiner believe that the schools keep very quiet about the religion/philosophy because they think fewer parents would send their child there if they understood it. And that the purpose of the schools is to indoctrinate the children, to do with their beliefs in reincarnation.
"If you are interested in the problems many parents feel about this system, there is a website here...
"Equally, those in favour of Steiner schools have a website here...
"Another issue which parents often have is the fact that those in favour of Steiner education are very quick to threaten websites with libel action, so it is very likely that this thread will soon be pulled by MNHQ, unless all posters on it are very careful to be non-controversial. This, in itself, leads to comparisons with cults which have a tendency to limit open debate."
"It's such a strange thing though. I know an adult who was educated this way and she's lovely, and happy — wacky too, in some ways. Have met others and they seem ok.
"It's when it goes wrong that the trouble seems to be dealt with in such a way that the parents are kept out of it, and I've heard of parents being bullied for asking too many normal questions.
"I think our local Steiner school is fine (expensive though) but I wouldn't automatically assume they all are."
"I think this answer to a Yahoo question [http://au.answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20100525223155AA86fHY] summarises how the philosophy/religion aspect relates to the way things are actually done in schools. So, its not so much that the children are being taught anthroposophy, but that the whole way the school operates is linked to the philosophy behind it.
"And the parents who have taken their children out tend to say that they were not made aware when they joined the school that this was how things were done, or why, and that they would not have chosen to send their child to the school if they had been aware of it — the prospectuses, open days etc tend to describe these same things in ways which don't mention reincarnation." *
"Most people seem to like the school initially, and are welcomed. Children are encouraged to do 'natural' activities, lots of nature based stuff.
"Drawing etc., is encouraged in a uniform way, and children are taught to draw using certain colours and are generally (IIRC) encouraged to draw very fluid drawings. Black & brown are discouraged.
"Reading is not encouraged before 7, with the basis being that until the milk teeth are gone there is a different spiritual makeup to the child.
"Television and related media are strongly discouraged.
"The Steiner school is very very community based, and new families are welcomed into the community, and encouraged to remain in it. They are encouraged to participate fully in the community and encourage others to join it.
"The philosophy underpinning steiner education is really quite unique, and it is well worth reading about it to fully understand it.
"(It is diametrically incompatible with teaching methods such as ABA)
"Generally, the steiner schools like children to settle in well for a year or two before they start introducing the finer details of the philosophy to the families, so that they are well established in the community and can see all of its... benefits ...first"
"As far as I know there were no serious legal threats [stemming from previous discussions, etc., at mumsnet]. An individual [Sune Nordwall] since found to be working for the Swedish Waldorf Federation, paid to 'monitor' UK critics of Steiner Waldorf education, merely threatened to sue mumsnet for allowing mothers to post certain comments. He had no real means to do so but managed to 'chill' the threads.
"I can imagine which comments you mean but add that most of the deleted posts contained references to Steiner's own — bizarre — work or links to a US site critical of Waldorf education (housing a Waldorf Survivors' Group) or, even though this beggars belief, to the work of a historian writing a (now completed) doctoral dissertation about the history of anthroposophy at an Ivy League university. They were not libellous. Frankly, since this concerns families in the UK, their comments were in the public interest.
"I'm not aware of any other legal challenges aimed at mumsnet re Steiner education but I will stand corrected if that is the case.
"imo some posters here have a good grasp of anthroposophy's place in the Steiner classroom. I would say that children are 'marinaded' in anthroposophy — so you'd better know what it is before handing over your dcs. This makes it all the more important that information isn't suppressed.
"There are some really interesting old threads on here...
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* Here is the material referred to, at Yahoo:
"'Can anyone summarise Steiner's Education theories/concept?
"'I am having a bit of trouble understanding it, and it would be great if any of you could just explain it to me.'
"- Chosen by Voters
"'Well, to begin with, it pretty much boils down to reincarnation. Steiner believed that the purpose of school was to help a child's soul completely incarnate from the spirit world into their body. Everything that happens in a Steiner school pretty much is done to aid the reincarnation he believed in.
"'Color- Only certain colors are allowed to be used at certain ages, and every grade level has their certain color that Steiner deemed necessary and appropriate for that age. The colors are believed to possess powers that will help the child's developing soul in its journey into the new body.
"'Music- like with color, there are Steiner deemed song and notes that are to be used at certain ages to help the child's soul in it's reincarnation journey.
"'Dance- A certain kind of dance called Eurythmy is taught to children. The movements are believed to be a sign language to communicate with the spirit world.
"'Bullying- When children are bullied, or are bullying someone, it is because they are working through issues from previous lives. It is therefore important to leave bullies and the ones they are bullying alone or else their incarnation into this body will not be complete.
"'Four Temperaments- Children are broken into 4 temperaments choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic and sanguine. The temperament a child is decided to have dictates how the teacher interacts with them, from where they sit in the room, what questions are asked of them, and what kind of work they receive.
"'Technology and academics- a materialistic spirit named Ahriman who alienates the human being from his spiritual roots, inhabits technological things like TVs, and computers.
"'Although primarily seen as a negative figure in Anthroposophy, Ahriman does have positive contributions. One of these is to bring about intellectual development therefore it is important to keep children away from away from early intellectual endeavors. When a child’s intellect develops too quickly, their soul is hardened by Ahriman.
"'Art- wet on wet paintings and block crayon drawings are taught to young children because the work they produce is very much like the spirit world that the children just came from. As a child ages, they are allowed to put lines into their work, to represent the fact that they are growing into this world of hard lines and straight edges.
"'If you want any more information, feel free to contact me.
"'Lived in a Waldorf training center as well as having taught and student taught at Waldorf Schools.
"'Here are some other sites that talk about what I just spoke about in more depth.
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[R.R., 21st Century.]
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Here are comments from some other mumsnet discussions.
"'If a child starts too early they will learn to read but they will never be a fluent reader as an adult'
"I am very suspicious of blanket statement like this. Not all children are the same!
"Gonna blow my own trumpet here (sorry) but I could recognise words at 2 and read basic sentences when I started school at 4 1/2. I loved reading then and guess what, I am a "fluent reader" now!!
"I'm not saying all children should be taught to read early, and I'm well aware that those who start later catch up fine, but what about those who love it / have a natural aptitude for words? I absolutely treasure my memories of those early books. The idea of not being exposed to reading till years later really unnerves me actually.
"Learning through play is essential IMO, but why at the expense of books?!! Way too prescriptive / one-size-fits-all for me."
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"There are serious issues here, to do with the belief system Steiner schools are based on- reincarnation, races, karma, clairvoyance, spirit worlds.
"These crazy beliefs in the wrong hands , are nothing less than dangerous.
"There are good schools, and good teachers, everywhere. There are also dodgy ones. If they can use a ludicrous and racist doctrine to justify their actions, it is wrong.
"Why is it that the word anthroposophy isn't often on school's literature?
"Why doesn't the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship explain what anthroposophical belief entails?
"Parents need to be told about anthroposophy, and the Steiner movement needs to take a long hard look at Steiner's writing on race, rather than pretending it isn't there, or saying 'he only meant "nigger" in a nice way'"
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''[I]t took over two years to get over the trauma of just two terms at the school [i.e., a Steiner Waldorf school]. But he was very young, so thankfully, has no [now?] forgotten most of it (aside from the odd nightmare still) so life is happier now.
"They get away with it because they lie to parents, simple as that."
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[Q] “I'm looking into schools at the moment and was recently talking to someone whose kids go to a Steiner school in Kent. It sounded great (no formal learning until the age of 6 or 7 and lots of creative activities, etc) but DH says he's not keen as he's heard lots of bad things about Steiner schools... I was hoping someone with experience could tell me about the good and bad things. I live in London. Thank you”
[A1] “I know adults who went there and found it a bit of a bear pit. But then again a lot of people do seem to like it. Not sure myself why you'd want to pay money in order for your children not to be taught much."
[A2] “I have no personal experience, but looked into Steiner for DS at one point and found some of what is available on the internet very concerning. The fact that Steiner supporters attempt to stifle the debate is also of concern.”
[A3] “I went to a steiner primary school and my parents panicked and had me crammed for common entrance at 11. Despite living in London, I met my first black person at secondary school. Everyone at my primary school was white (occasional Asian). I am still hazy on what a noun or a verb is — really basic stuff (I went on to get a first in English lit at uni).”
[A4] “What useful role would you say gnomes could play in the teaching of maths? How do you feel about reincarnation? Are you members of an organised religion already or do you have a belief system that you subscribe to? How do you feel about joining one or participating in one without being told it is a religion? Do you think children can get art 'wrong'?”
[A5] “My ds is at this moment watching Dr Who on tv whilst using the laptop and spent part of the morning on the xbox. We are not strict vegans nor do we hug trees or talk to gnomes,but he is very happy at out local Steiner where he is doing very well academically,is learning three languages and two instruments,he has become a confident and popular child with a wide general knowledge as well as developing a love of gardening,cooking woodwork and pottery. There are children at his school from across the globe and of many ethnic origins. You will hear good and bad reports of every type of school but I think it is important that you visit the school and make up your own mind. I don't think it is the place for every child but I am happy it's the right place for my child (he's 13 now) I have three other ds who all went/go to different schools as what is right for one is not always right for another.”
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“My daughter is 5.10 yrs old. At age 4 we sent her to a Steiner school, where there was no numeracy or literacy whatsoever ... We moved to a new area in April this year when our daughter (J) was 5.4 yrs old. We decided to put her into a mainstream ie not Steiner, fee paying school ... Having never had any numeracy or literacy, she was now exposed to the normal curriculum ... Her class tutor indicated at parents' evening (2 weeks ago) that J is not able to cope with Year 1 work. It is too advanced for her.”
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"Well I've known about 30 people who were Steiner educated, not one went to University, even though their parents' could've afforded it!"
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“I used to be a firm believer...that Waldorf methods were the best. So I enrolled my children in a Waldorf Methods Charter School ... After the two years of kindergarten that are required there, my kids were six and didn't know any numbers and couldn't read a single word ... When my daughter was in ‘first’ grade, she was painting and singing songs, which is awesome, but no education was getting done ... [M]y kids would come home with cuts and bruises all the time and there would be no explanation from the staff ... I discontinued enrollment there and enrolled my kids in a great public school ... [T]he support staff [there] are actually engaged in the children's interests ... The clincher was when my mom visited (she has a master's in education) and spent a few days with them at their Waldorf school and said it was garbage.”
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[Q] "I went to a toddler group at our local steiner school today and it was just lovely. There was such a calm atmosphere and my daughter adored it. We've been thinking about schools for a while now and I wondered if anyone had any good (or bad) experiences of a steiner education, in preschool, primary and secondary levels. Many thanks in advance."
[A1] "well there are those who live and breathe steiner, and there are those who have been 'damaged' by steiner."
[A2] "...I get the impression that it's a lifestyle. I went to an open day/fair at our local Waldorf School, had a chat with some parents and teachers, looked at the Ofsted reports. It sounds like a lot more of a commitment from a parents' point of view than a more conventional style school."
[A3] "It's really not a lifestyle, more of a religion."
[A4] "brace yourself.
"i rather like the whole ethos and i'm not adverse to a bit of gnome and alien theory but i'm too sane to join up wholeheartedly."
[A5] "A friend has [a child] in Steiner and really likes it.
"I think you have to be quite committed to the lifestyle/philosophy of it though. Some of it is a bit wacky-spiritual."
[A6] "I visited one once. With a view to sending my DD. It was quite a distance from our home but we were really keen on finding a stress free and creative environment for DD.
"It was one of the oddest experiences I've ever had...from the fact that the school looked like Old Mother Hubbards cottage (all peach and with no sharp corners) and was nestled deep in a forest...with weird atmosphere....to the fact that all the art looked like the same person had drawn it....coupled with a wooden dish of gnomes with no faces and feral kids who almost bashed newborn DD2s head in with a big stick...while the "teacher" looked on smiling...it was not the school for us."
[A7] "My sister (10 years younger than me) went to one from the ages of 12 - 16 because she hated her school and just couldn't get on in a results driven environment, she is not academically challenged by any means but she is not the best at tests or working fast.
"She really loved the Steiner school and got on much better there, she is an amazing musician and they really harnessed that kind of talent. However, IMHO they do not necessarily prepare you very well for life in that the child is the focus and you are taught to learn things at your pace and it seemed that you weren't really punished for things like you would be in a state school (lateness etc) which are life lessons I think are important — especially if you then step into a more driven college / university / work environment."
[A8] "Cruel and inconsistent, inappropriate punishments for normal behaviour (summarily being sent out of the classroom from the age of seven and made to stay there, or being sent to the office to sit for a good hour.
"Older, teenage children being brought in to drag a seven yo [i.e., year old] out from under the desk he is hiding beneath — abuse of each child concerned, as well as the rest of the class exposed to it.
"Wild, inapropriate behaviour tolerated because it's perpetrated by children of good Steiner families. Toeing the Waldorf line considered more important than basic, decent human behaviour."
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[Q] "We are currently trying to decide where to send our 3 1/2 year old son to school next year. Having been a little scared at the amount of pressure that some schools place on kids these days we thought we would investigate all options. Just wondered if any of you had any experience with the steiner school system? I know that there are a lot of old threads on here but just wondered if anyone had any recent input?"
[A1] "Wouldn't it be an idea to say which schools? i think some are worse than others."
[A2] "I would also say that most state schools don't place pressure on kids."
[A3] "tbh if you've read the older threads and haven't run for the hills at the way all the steiner loons descend and the links to the 'surviving steiner' sites, you should just go for it. i personally think you're crackers, but that does seem to be the steiner way..."
[A4] "i dunno, at least christianity is a well-known cult... steiner seems to keep its cultishness in the background until you are in its midst. the reason that the threads are old is that people got tired of being shouted down, tbh."
[A5] "Why don't you look at Montessori schools? There are a few in London."
[A6] "I have visited the St Michael Steiner school in Wandsworth. All the mums are expected to get involved crafting stuff to sell at their fairs. All the kids look really washed out, and in need of a steak. That is the extent of my knowledge of the place. And I would cut the heads of my dc before sending them there"
[A7] "My son has been at our local Steiner for nearly two years he started at secondary level, he loves it is doing very well and every one is really friendly...."
[A8] "I would recommend Steiner for ages 3 to 6 then switch to mainstream. that way the child's imagination has developed and they are ready to learn to read and do maths without parental headaches."
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"Before putting your children into a Steiner school you should read the following post on Professor Colquhoun's blog: The true nature of Steiner (Waldorf) education. Mystical barmpottery at taxpayers? expense. Pt.1 www.dcscience.net/?p=3528"
"Steiner School system is just a sect. Like any other sect it brainwashes you to get you in and then sucks your finance.
"Those dolls [i.e., faceless cloth dolls promoted by Waldorf schools] are just strange and pity."
"There's a moving new blog post from Carol Wyatt, an ex-(Steiner) Waldorf parent in the US here:
"'I never really understood anthroposophy. The meaning of that word made no sense to me. I thought that it was like any other philosophical concept...That I could interpret it as I liked. What I soon realized was that anthroposophy is a religion. A religion that Steiner invented and Waldorf takes very seriously.'"
"The bit that scared me was the bit about it being OK if your unvaccinated child got measles and died, because it meant they were 'impaired'.
"I only glanced at the link...it just confirmed what I saw when I visited a Steiner school in a remote rural area...I went all open minded and hopeful....it was bloody scary!
"DH and I could not wait to get out of there! As we were brought into the kindergarten room, a bowl of faceless gnome dolls was proffered to my child who was freaked out by them....the atmosphere in the kindergarten was oppressive and weird. The "teacher" wore an outfit like Old Mother Hubbard and the school was full of paintings which looked like they had been done by the same hand. The little ones were unnaturally quiet and good. They crowded round us and kid of grabbed on....
"Our tour culminated in us stumbling across a bunch of 10 year olds totally unsupervised...who were playing poker in a deserted classroom! The younger kids were chasing one another with planks of wood in the yard and narrowly missing me and my baby in arms....totally bloody odd it was.
"The garden was overgrown and neglected...it was so reote we felt we had stumbled on a sect or cult..."
"About Anthroposophy....yes...all very strange plus when a child is naughty, they blame it on the gnomes! A child under 7 is thought to be still 'with the little folk'...until their baby teeth come out...plastic is dirty and Steiner had some odd ideas linked to the Nazis."
"Mad as a box of frogs."
"I think the dolls are lovely...."
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[Q] “I have been looking into the cambridge steiner school, i went to the mother and baby group and found it....well, odd. Quite a serious, nature worshipy, cultish atmosphere, strange monotone singing and general cringy pagan hippy stuff, i was a bit concerned. Any experiences of the steiner school would be really appreciated!”
[A1] “I've no experience of the Steiner school but it's something that I (very) briefly considered for my DCs. There are lots of threads about Steiner schools if you do a search in the education forum, they seem to generate fairly strong opinions....”
[A3] “...no experience of the cambridge school — but my fairly hippyish SIL dropped out their teacher training because she thought it was too much — too odd, too inflexible — and the threads on the education section are quite illuminating about it in general.
"I would urge you to visit your local state primary school — my experience is the states schools in cambridge are they of a very high standard and are really lovely places. Have a look in the primary school forum for more general info on looking for a primary school"
[A4] “I know a number of people who have defected from the Cambridge Steiner school into state mainstream. Their experiences weren't very happy.”
[A5] “Hello, I'm a dad who took our 2 year old son to the parent/child group at Cambridge Steiner school for a few months last year. Our experience was relatively benign, pleasant even, but your concerns do ring true. I suspect that the level of oddness depends a lot on the group leader.
“If you read up on Steiner education you're sure to come across Anthroposophy, on which their theories of child development and much else is based. I think it's fair to say that the Cambridge school seems more coy than most about this with prospective parents. Looking back at our experiences, it is deeply influenced by Anthroposophy.
“One of the surprises for us was a weekend course for parents ostensibly on 'home nursing' but which turned out to be promoting the Steiner brand of alternative medicine. Discussions over snack time at the p/c group were occasionally on the evils of modern medicine and technology, topics which made me feel uncomfortable.
‘Meanwhile, little M is showing early signs of wanting to read and an interest in numbers. Reading and arithmetic are not subjects generally promoted in Steiner education until the age of 7, so it's clear we're already on a different course....”
[A6] “Hello, My toddler and I go to parent and child at the Cambridge Steiner school and find it really worth while....”
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I don't know the gender(s) of the correspondents in the following discussion,
but the back-and-forth is worth a look.
[Q] “I just want to hear what kind of take Dopers [i.e., correspondents at The Straight Dope] have on Waldorf Schools ... My niece is in the 8th grade and has attended a Waldorf school since Kindergarten ... I would really like to hear what others here have to say before I pipe up.”
[A1] “...if we're going to discount an educational tradition just because its underlying belief-system is whacky, well, heck...”
[A2] “...The schools were started on a philosophy called Anthroposophy. This rejects modern medicine and psychiatry and promotes a belief in things like astrology and spiritual mysticism.
"But how much a school accepts this varies. One of the [Waldorf schools] in my town has all the teachers wear long flowing skirts everyday and talks a lot about reincarnation as plants. The other takes a gentler than average method of education, but doesn't get all into the woo.”
[A3] “I have an anecdote about a friend of my mother's. He had his children in a Waldorf school, and worked out a deal where he would teach a semester of physics in exchange for a break on tuition (they had a semester of chemistry followed by a semester of physics).
"Sometime during his first week, he made a casual reference to the periodic table, and no one knew what he was talking about. He probed a bit, and discovered that they had spent an entire semester of 'chemistry' learning about the healing properties of different kinds of crystals. Even more disturbing, the administration was completely unaware that they were not learning mainstream chemistry (and were horrified when they found out, but still, it seems like the sort of thing that should come to the attention of a principal before the class is over).
"He ended up teaching both chemistry and physics for his semester, then withdrawing his kids from the school.”
[A4] “Not teaching your children to read until they're older is a turn-off for me [Waldorf schools usually postpone reading until age 7].”
[A5] “Statler schools are slightly better, but neither is especially charming or forgiving.”
[A6] “...I went to one of these schools for two years of elementary school (after I'd learned to read). While I can't say for sure that it would have been the optimal place for me long term, it was certainly a delightful portion of my childhood. There was definitely a lot of woo going on (which annoyed me), but I was adequately educated...”
[A7] “...My kids go to an ordinary public school and got that [math] starting in first grade. Not in a complex fashion, but the concepts.
“They started getting the concepts of algebra in 3rd grade.”
[A8] “[I]t makes a huge difference if the child has a learning disability or some such issue. A huge difference. I'm afraid too many kids could easily get lost in the woo.”
[A9] “...I have little faith in the public schools catching and correcting [learning] problems.
“Anyone considering one of these [Waldorf] schools can find plenty not to like about them, but the reading thing is seriously minor... “
[A10] “...sounds like a better education than you'd get from the Full Gospel Pentecostal Day School...”
[A11] "Bananas, celery, walnuts, grapes!"
[A12 - the original questioner] “Thanks for the input. I have a niece who attends a Waldorf school and I am shocked at the lack of real core education. They sort of seem to pretend to have math and language, but my niece knows almost nothing for her age, it's tragic as she is a smart kid and my sister and her husband are shelling out all this money for her 'education'.
"When I was there for a visit earlier this year her teacher assigned my niece a biography of Turkey. A BIOGRAPHY. Of a COUNTRY. I was flabbergasted. I was sure my niece misspoke, but I looked at her papers and sure enough, he refers to what is a standard research paper on a country/culture as a biography. The teacher doesn't seem to know the definition of 'biography'. WTF? It still completely baffles me as I sit here and write it.
"This is just the tip of the iceberg. I'm pretty good at math, and tutoring her drove me nuts as her assignments just didn't make any sense. Often vital data were left out, making the problem unworkable, unless one assumed things which weren't given. Each and every time, it turned out that the teacher expected it to be assumed, because it was 'obvious'. It was maddening. Again, TIP OF THE ICEBERG.”
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