bill wood’s research and bristol steiner free school

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:

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.

15 thoughts on “bill wood’s research and bristol steiner free school

  1. In the magical hands of the one who wrote the Waldorf Education Austraila report, numbers seem to become very flexible ;-) But their funny way of describing the Dahlin transfer rate as 58-60% (why not just write 58, 69 or 60?) made me revisit that figure in the original resport. Which made me discover that this percentage is actually declining. Probably only Waldorf Education Australia knows what the precentage might be today. I’m (a bit) sorry for the ridicule but their mathematics seems to be influenced by extraterrestial forces …

  2. Was steadily declining at the time when Dahlin published his findings, right? It is some time ago, and it would certainly be interesting to know the situation today…

    Btw, it’s the gnomes. The gnome counting made anthroposophical maths very flexible, for obvious spiritual-scientific reasons.

  3. By the way, Bo Dahlin’s numbers deserve more discussion. I feel they’re not as peripheral as this australian study (perhaps we will see it used because it’s peripheral and difficult to look up, which is why I thought it was worth getting this stuff in a post and out of the way…). Dahlin (et alia) is even more important in light of the swedish situation, which is getting more attention now.

  4. Exactly, the gnome-ifested australian mathematics is only significant if someone should be unlycky enough to bother with them. Which now includes me, Joe and his friends. Which probably makes me a fair target for ridicule as a master nerd of kokosofical statistics ;-) I mercifully abdstain from speculations about what all this means for the Bristol friends …

    And yes, the Dahlin study is much less of a joke. It isn’t only the transfer rate which is declining, also the acamic standards seems to be deteriorating … The 2003 sub-report presents data in a reasonable and honest way. Which shows, in my intertretation, that the performamve of the waldorf schools is shockingly bad compared to what you would expect. The final comprehensive report of 2006 however, deviates in worrisome ways from common academic standards. And you come away with the impression that, in the words of Dahlin, the waldorf performance is “overall” good.

  5. I have this serious devil in my head that comes out and blurts out serious things and gets me in trouble. My true self very much prefers kokosophical gnome-infested maths. Would be more interested in the Dahlin study if it was a joke. Although my serious self — the tiny devil part in me — seems to have other intentions. I need to battle with it until it relents.

    Of course it’s the gnomes! These mischieveous litte bastards!

  6. Yes. He must have been. I can’t see any other reason for me to suddenly say serious things like that. Against my own will!!

    I mean, where else did that comment come from? It even bored myself.

  7. Hi all,
    I had, until recently, never heard of Steiner/Waldorf education but became curious having heard something from a friend, which has brought me here.
    I just wanted to say, as an Australian, vocational studies means any post school studying. It could be any TAFE studying or even an apprenticeship, which here requires the completion of a certificate 3 in your chosen field. So it could be as simple as a certificate 2 for example, a 3-6 month course. Also worthy of mention is that most of these courses, the certificate 3’s and under especially, need no prerequisite so prior schooling can be irrelevant.
    Especially helpful for those who’ve gone through alternative education. To entry to a university in Australia you need to gain the minimum score for the particular course through your high school score(called a different name in each state) but there is a special entry port of entry these students could use. Without a standard tertiary entry score given from school, these kids couldn’t enter university normally and would have to enter through this special admissions process.
    Also from the previous article I had just read, perhaps the reason university rates are different country wide to fresh out of school rates could be because many people do a degree later in life here. A lot of kids leave school to work(it’s considered cool) and of course later on realize they kinda need a degree… And re enter through the mature age admissions process.
    Anyway, quite a rant this turned into.
    I’m really enjoying the debate ;)
    Hope I’ve helped :)

  8. Thank you! The explanation was really helpful! It’s often difficult to know exactly what things mean in a different system, and this confusion is handy for the Steiner folks to profit from when they put together their PR material. Sometimes perhaps they don’t understand what they’re reading themselves — and interpret everything in a way that’s positive for them — but at other times I’m sure they know but simply hope that people won’t ask if vocational studies are comparable to university, for example. They count on people to think that if a comparison is presented, it’s relevant and correct.

  9. You’re welcome!
    I was thinking the same thing- that they could be unaware of the obvious flaws in the study. Happily blindly oblivious :/
    On a side note in Victoria (a state in aus) they have been running some ‘Steiner streams’ in public schools with no parental consent in a few schools. I just read an article about a father who has had to remove his son from one public school because at the parent/teacher interview he was told his son would need to repeat the year because he had drawn a picture of himself, drawing a picture of himself. Apparently this had meant he wasn’t incarnated yet(or reincarnated or had already been or some such nonsense) and would not be able to proceed in his education…
    It all gets stranger the more I read/hear about it

  10. ‘that they could be unaware of the obvious flaws in the study. Happily blindly oblivious :/’

    Exactly… They really have little reason to find out more as long as they’re pleased with the results as they imagine them to be…

    Some of these Steiner streams have been in trouble, isn’t that so? I remember reading things about the (now closed, I think) Footscray Steiner stream.

    That is a shocking thing to hear, I imagine… it’s not what you’d expect from a school. But even in Steiner schools that are openly Steiner schools (not Steiner applied, more or less openly, in public school classes, for example) these things happen — and some parents who are not themselves anthroposophists are not likely to fully understand how important such ideas are (eg, about the child’s incarnation process and its ‘signs’).

  11. I got a private message re Bill Woods’s research. I thought these points are worth noting:

    ‘In addition to the defects otherwise identified I would point out that he says the Steiner pupils are about 1 year older when they start university, but makes no adjustment for that. Nor is there any adjustment for the socio economic background of the Steiner pupils. I don’t know how MBSW was in the sample period but according to its website the basic fees are about £15,000 and it’s in the countryside so it would be reasonable to assume the pupils will have a privileged background. Therefore he is not comparing like with like.’

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