Walter Stern puts spotlight on long history of educational disparities in the U.S.

Educational Policy Studies

Stern puts spotlight on long history
of educational disparities in the United States

Ask Walter Stern about his background and research interests, and it takes a few moments to understand how he landed a faculty position within a school of education. He received a Ph.D. in history from Tulane University, where he researched and wrote a dissertation examining schools, race and the making of modern New Orleans from 1900 to 1960.

Dig a little deeper, however, and it becomes clear why his work is so relevant.

“There is generally an agreement today that there are great disparities along racial lines in American society and educational systems,” says Stern, who was hired as an assistant professor with UW–Madison’s Department of Educational Policy Studies in August. “But there is not a lot of agreement about how to go about addressing these disparities. I hope my historical research helps expose how deeply rooted these disparities are and how they’ve been built up and reinforced over long periods of time. It helps us realize just how bold strategies will need to be in order to undo the inequities.”

Walter Stern pull quoteStern’s decision to pursue a career in academia took a few years to germinate. After graduating from Yale with a bachelor’s degree in American studies in 2001, the native of New Orleans says he mainly knew he wanted to teach and write.

So he taught English for two years at a public high school in Greenville, Miss., where 99 percent of his students were African American. He then spent three years working as a reporter, the final two covering the education beat at the Savannah (Ga.) Morning News.

Hurricane Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast of the United States in August 2005, and the following year Stern was given the opportunity to return to his hometown to work as a consultant on New Orleans’ efforts to remake its public school system in the aftermath of the devastating storm. Over time, Stern says he became skeptical of the city’s move to an all-charter school system, and he decided to return to school, enrolling at Tulane.

“My interest in the historical intersection of race, education, and urban change in the United States grew out of my varied experiences,” says Stern, whose dissertation — “The Negro’s Place: Schools, Race and the Making of Modern New Orleans, 1900–1960” — received the History of Education Society’s top dissertation honor in 2015.

Stern explains how his research on New Orleans, the city with the nation’s highest percentage of students in charter schools, details how past public school policies created the separate and unequal neighborhoods that undermine educational equity. 

Walter Stern
Walter Stern joined the School of Education's Department of
Educational Policy Studies in August 2016.
“During the Jim Crow era, officials concentrated black schools in undesirable areas and white schools in nascent subdivisions,” says Stern. “While white schools spurred public investment nearby, black schools invited divestment and demolition.”

Stern adds that his research shows how, in addition to targeting poor and minority students, charter school laws and practices encourage cycles of school “conversion” that destabilize the segregated communities where many disadvantaged children live.

Stern is under contract with Louisiana State University Press to turn his research into an upcoming book that’s due out in the spring of 2018.

“Unfortunately, my work doesn’t point to clear solutions to the disparities we see in American education,” says Stern. “I don’t have a 10-step plan. But if I’m able to expose a little part about how cities became separate and unequal along racial lines over long periods of time, hopefully we can better understand what led to these structural problems and better build something new.”

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