Waldorf education really comes down to the difference between teaching a curriculum and teaching children. Children learn best when a caring, connected adult incorporates the rhythm of life, music, art, and movement into the classroom.
Waldorf Education was developed by Rudolph Steiner in the early 1900's in Germany, for the children of factory workers. The basic principles, which are mostly guiding versus strictly adhered to, include:
Self-paced and independent learning;
Imagination, art, music, movement & spirituality (non-religious) integrated into content;
A focus on nature and the rhythm of the body, day, week, month, and year;
An appreciation of nature, natural fibers and fresh air; and
A consistent teacher (up to 9 years together) and family atmosphere.
Waldorf education divides childhood into three seven-year stages of development and believes that there are "right' times to teach different subjects, and a source of contention with "standards" in the U.S is that Waldorf schools may not teach reading until the children are at least seven years old. Students coming from Waldorf frequently test below grade level until third grade, but by 8th grade are usually at the top of their classes, supporting Steiner's belief that if you hold back until a child is ready they will have the foundations that support quick and successful learning.
One of my daughters started Waldorf education in preschool but left after kindergarten because she was reading too much and I was afraid it would conflict with Waldorf principles. We did however keep many of the art skills and rituals we learned in Waldorf with us and it is still a major part of our lives.
Today in the United States there are many private Waldorf schools and 44 public ones, most of them k-8th grade. All of the classrooms begin with a teacher shaking the hand of the student and looking them in the eye with a morning greeting, and ending with a blessing for a safe journey.
There is a magic and respect in a Waldorf classroom that I have never perceived in other classrooms, and I cannot help thinking that every teen would be better off to have this kind of connection to a teacher, school, and classroom.