A Waldorf school follows the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925).
The links above will give you some historical background to Montessori and Waldorf. That's useful, but parents want answers to basic questions like teaching styles, how the curriculum is organized and so on. But before we go on, let me make this disclaimer: my eldest daughter attended The Waldorf School in Garden City, New York. It was a happy, wonderful experience.
Now let's look at a point by point comparison of Montessori vs Waldorf.
Montessori believes in following the child. So the child chooses what he wants to learn and the teacher guides the learning.
Waldorf uses a teacher-directed approach in the classroom.
Montessori has no set spirituality per se. It is very flexible and adaptable to individual needs and beliefs.
Waldorf is rooted in anthroposophy. This philosophy believes that in order to understand the workings of the universe, people must first have an understanding of humanity.
Montessori and Waldorf recognize and respect a child's need for rhythm and order in his daily routine. They choose to recognize that need in different ways. Take toys, for example. Madame Montessori felt that children shouldn't just play but should play with toys which will teach them concepts. Montessori schools use Montessori designed and approved toys.
A Waldorf education encourages the child to create his own toys from materials which happen to be at hand. Using the imagination is the child's most important 'work' posits the Steiner Method.
Both Montessori and Waldorf use curricula which are developmentally appropriate. Both approaches believe in a hands on as well as an intellectual approach to learning. Both approaches also work in multi-year cycles when it comes to child development. Montessori uses six year cycles. Waldorf works in seven year cycles.
Both Montessori and Waldorf have a strong sense of societal reform built into their teaching. They believe in developing the whole child, teaching it to think for itself and, above all, showing it how to avoid violence. These are beautiful ideals which will help build a better world for the future.
Montessori and Waldorf use non-traditional methods of assessments. Testing and grading are not part of either methodology.
Use of Computers and TV
Montessori generally leaves the use of popular media to individual parents to decide. Ideally the amount of TV a child watches will be limited. Ditto the use of cellphones and MP3 players.
Waldorf is usually pretty rigid about not wanting young people exposed to popular media. Waldorf wants children to create their own worlds. You will not find computers in a Waldorf classroom except in upper school grades.
The reason why TV and DVDs are not popular in Montessori and Waldorf circles is that both want children to develop their imaginations. Watching TV gives children something to copy, not to create. Waldorf tends to place a premium on fantasy or imagination in the early years even to the point where reading is delayed somewhat.
Adherence to Methodology
Maria Montessori never trademarked or patented her methods and philosophy. So you will find many flavors of Montessori. Some schools are very strict in their interpretation of Montessori precepts. Others are much more eclectic. Just because it says Montessori doesn't mean that it is the real thing.
Waldorf schools, on the other hand, tend to stick pretty close to standards set out by the Waldorf Association.
See for Yourself
There are many other differences. Some of these are obvious; others are more subtle. What becomes obvious as you read about both educational methods is how gentle both approaches are.
The only way you will know for sure which approach is best for you is to visit the schools and observe a class or two. Speak with the teachers and director. Ask questions about allowing your children to watch TV and when and how children learn to read. There will be some parts of each philosophy and approach with which you will probably disagree. Determine what the deal breakers are and choose your school accordingly.
Put another way, the Montessori school which your niece attends in Portland won't be the same as the one you are looking at in Raleigh. They both will have Montessori in their name. Both might have Montessori trained and credentialed teachers. But, because they are not clones or a franchise operation, each school will be unique. You need to visit and make up your mind based on what you see and the answers you hear.
The same advice applies with respect to Waldorf schools. Visit. Observe. Ask questions. Choose the school which is the best fit for you and your child.
The progressive approaches which Montessori and Waldorf offer young children have been tried and tested for almost 100 years. They have many points in common as well as several differences. Contrast and compare Montessori and Waldorf with traditional preschools and kindergarten and you will see even more differences.