Office Hours: Mark Stern

Matthew Knowles


“Education is at the heart of a democracy. If you’re going to have inequality, one needs to think about why it costs more money to educate people who don’t have the types of social resources that more well-off kids have.”

These words form the heart of Visiting Assistant Professor in Educational Studies Mark Stern’s beliefs about educational reform.

Stern always had an inter­est in education, and when he was younger he wanted to be a teacher. As he progressed through college and graduate school, how­ever, his interests focused more toward educational policy and applying the philosophical con­cepts that he learned as a student.

“Education is something I can work on and hold on to,” Stern said. “My fidelity toward schooling is also fidelity toward justice and hope.”

To Professor Stern, educa­tional reform is about much more than just a few changes in public policy. In order to create a better educational system, there must be more broad-based improvements in societal infrastructure.

“I look at contemporary edu­cation policy, and I try to situ­ate it within conversations about political economy and political philosophy,” Stern said.

His beliefs are simple: if chil­dren do not have the basic neces­sities at home, they cannot be expected to concentrate at school.

“We need things like jobs, healthcare, nutrition and food. Education needs to be thought of in relation to all of those,” Stern said.

Professor Stern believes that although the quality of teachers and of the curriculum are not necessarily any better in North­ern European and East Asian schools, the fact that they have this kind of established public infrastructure helps all students learn better.

Not only does the government not make the necessary provisions for equal opportunity in educa­tion, but also, according to Pro­fessor Stern, the new programs with the greatest political support are not very effective. For exam­ple, he criticizes charter schools on several levels, including their administrative organization.

“There’s no elected school board,” Stern said. “Parents do not necessarily have a say in what goes on in the school. Most of the charter schools are run by a CEO. They have a board of trustees that are all appointed, most of which come from corporate backgrounds. So, when I see lots of people with lots of money very inter­ested in charter schools, I put up a red flag.”

In addition to disapproving of charter schools, Professor Stern thinks that Teach for America, while well-intentioned, is ulti­mately ineffectual. He believes that Teach for America “infantiliz­es” education because it assumes people are capable of teaching without any formal instruction on how to do so. But, above all, Professor Stern says the he is inter­ested in learning why, for the past two decades, educational policy coming out of the left and the right looks so similar to each oth­er. He is disturbed with the lack of debate progress in that area, and is doing research to find the cause.

It seems like it would be easy to become discouraged by the difficulty in improving our ed­ucational system, but, for Pro­fessor Stern, his work is a labor of love.

“I love schools. I love in­stitutions. I care very deeply about the way they affect soci­ety, and I also want to live in a society that does not look like the one today. 

Contact Matthew Knowles at [email protected]