The new Bristol Steiner Free School — applying for state-funding as a free school — made a claim on their website about the success of former Steiner students, referring to an Australian study. I wrote a post about the Bristol Steiner school a while ago. After a while, Joe Evans, who is involved in the school, named and also managed to locate the study, or a part of it, which you can find here, or via Joe Evans’s comment here. It’s a study by Bill Wood. It’s worth reading the old thread to find out more; it contains an interesting discussion not only about results and elusive research but about how this prospective Steiner free school, like so many others, does not succeed to present (or perhaps even figure out) its connection to anthroposophy. The folks at the Bristol Steiner school hade found their information about Wood’s study and its results from the Australian Steiner school association which made these claims in this document (see p 5):
This means that they claim significantly more Steiner students than mainstream students go on to higher studies.
Ulf Ärnström has read Bill Wood’s study, and has focused on the percentage of waldorf school students entering university compared with students from other schools. He writes in a comment:
Hello again Joe – and others interested in the truth of the claims of superiority of Mount Barker Waldorf School. You can easily check the figures for yourself in the link provided by Joe above.
Now if you could raise the percentage of pupils entering university from 14-16% to 44% it would be truly extraordinary. And that’s what Steiner Education Australia says in the report which Joe found here: http://bit.ly/K4hsds
Fortunately for the Adelaide University which lends credibility to the report, that’s not what Bill Woods, the author, says. The figures are based on such an embarrassing misunderstanding it’s almost unbelievable. This is what Bill says:
” … the rate at which school-leavers entered university in South Australia during this period was approximately 40 percent.”
There are in fact percentages of approximately 14 and 16 percent mentioned elsewhere in the text, but intended for a completely different analysis, a “comparison of the ages of ex-MBWS students attending university and the ages of the wider university student cohort.”
So shouldn’t the Mount Baker school and Joe be happy that 4% more of their pupils enter university? I don’t think so. At least not until someone can show that the family background of their parents is comparable to mainstream schools. Usually Waldorf parents are better educated which means their children should be more successful academically. In the part of the report Joe managed to find, there is no data on this. Which also invalidates the figures about the better grades by those who entered the university doors.
I’m not saying Mount Barker is a bad or mediocre school. For all I know it could very well be a fabulous place of learning. And they are certainly not responsible for the lack of reading and mathematics skills of the author of the Steiner Education Australia text. I am saying that as far as I and Joe can know at the moment, we cannot even honestly testify that one single Waldorf school on the other side of the planet is better than mainstream schools.
And Joe, you and your friends in Bristol have even bigger problems than that. If you want to give parents and authorities an accurate and honest picture of the evaluations of Waldorf pedagogy, you should tell them something completely different. To make a long story short, there are no studies I am aware of which shows that Waldorf education is superior to mainstream education. Quite the opposite. The best so far, and the only one taking the influence of family background into account, is a Dutch doctoral dissertation by Hilde Steenbergen (2009). It clearly states that Waldorf is a bad choice if you care about reading, writing and math. Of course you might get something else from Waldorf pedagogy, but it seems you have to pay for that …
There are a few more things to say about this. With the Steiner students, the number 49% seems to include vocational studies too. I’m not sure if ‘vocational studies’ can be translated into ‘university studies’ straight off. Perhaps someone would enlighten us in the comments. At least, to be able to determine the true value of the claim, this has to be sorted out. Also, the number 49% (used in the Autralian document) appears to be wrong, and should be 44%, that is, 4 percentage points more students from the waldorf school attend university or vocational studies compared to students from other schools who go on to university.
MarkH also read the study and found that the claims that waldorf students do as well as other students, once they have entered university, might also be flawed. Mark writes:
Unfortunately, there’s a serious problem in the section on student grades once they’re at university, which I think invalidates your statement that ex-Waldorf students significantly out-perform their peers from other schools.
Woods considers the grades obtained by the entire cohort of ex-Mount Barker Waldorf School students, who attended 3 different universities: The University of Adelaide, The University of South Australia and Flinders University. His control group consists of students from only the University of Adelaide. Now, UoA is a very distinguished institution in the equivalent of the US Ivy League or the upper reaches of the UK Russell group. The other two universities… aren’t in the same league. Is it possible that courses are less demanding there than at UoA? Could it be easier to obtain higher grades? Woods doesn’t take this possibility into account at all.
If I were examining Woods’ thesis, based on this extract alone, I’d be tempted to fail him.
Mark’s comment is particularly relevant, since one of the claims Bristol Steiner school makes, based upon Wood’s study, is that ‘students who had been at Steiner/Waldorf schools […] significantly outperformed their peers from other schools’. This claim seems questionable.
This is, of course, by no means an exhaustive coverage of Bill Wood’s research. But it’s an indication that perhaps the Bristol Steiner school and others who might feel inclined to make similar claims should investigate these matters further. To attract parents to one’s school based upon a possible misrepresentation of research results is not the best idea. And everyone should always be wary when Steiner schools present research that supposedly shows glowing results for Steiner education (even worse when they do it without providing any references or when the study in question is almost impossible to locate). Sometimes they haven’t even read the research themselves, as was evidently the case with Bristol Steiner school, regardless of whether their appreciation of Bill Wood’s work was right or wrong.