Research News

New Faculty: Daphne Penn, sociologist of education, joins Vanderbilt Peabody College

Daphne Penn
Daphne Penn

Sociologist of education Daphne Penn joined Vanderbilt University Peabody College of education and human development in July as assistant professor of education policy and inequality. Her research aims to understand and address the root causes of educational inequality by examining schools as microcosms of society.

“In addition to being a native Tennessean, I am also a graduate of Peabody College’s undergraduate program in human and organizational development. Returning home to teach and conduct research is both personally and professionally gratifying. I am excited about the unique opportunity to serve the many communities that are responsible for my success to date,” Penn said.

Penn’s current research focuses on how the new demography of the American South is shaping politics, governance, and equity in K-12 schools. Her forthcoming book, The American Dream Deferred, examines the politics of immigration-related demographic change when unaccompanied minors from Guatemala are introduced into a historic African American high school in the U.S. South. Penn’s research “demonstrates how school resource constraints, institutionally embedded practices among educators, and the social construction of older adolescent immigrants as low-wage workers—rather than students—contributed to a two-tiered system of education at the school and constrained newcomers’ ability to use education as a tool for social mobility,” her website says.

In similar research published in AERA Open, Penn explored how educators’ social identities shaped their identification with and orientation toward the needs of migrant, English-learner students in a new immigrant-destination high school. Educators saw their service to these students as either a moral imperative, professional responsibility, or legal obligation, which influenced how they perceived their roles in addressing migrant students’ needs.

Penn also is a co-principal investigator on the Nashville Partnership for Educational Equity Research’s first major research initiative, a three-year, $650,000 grant from the William T. Grant Foundation to study early postsecondary opportunities, access, and success in Metro Nashville Public Schools and to design solutions for addressing disparities. The study is led by principal investigators Sean P. Corcoran, associate professor of public policy and education, and Matthew Nelson, director of college and career readiness for Metro Nashville Public Schools.

Penn’s scholarly work has been supported by the Ford Foundation, the Center for American Political Studies, and the Immigration Initiative at Harvard. She has published research in Sociology of Education, Sociological Studies of Children & Youth, and AERA Open. Additionally, her co-edited volume, The Dark Side of Reform: Exploring the Impact of Public Policy on Racial Equity, was published in 2022 by Lexington Books.

Penn earned her bachelor of science in human and organizational development from Vanderbilt University and master of science in sociology from Purdue University. After earning her Ph.D. in education from Harvard University, Penn completed a Provost’s Postdoctoral Fellowship in the Department of Sociology and Population Studies Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

In addition to her scholarly pursuits, Penn is the founder and editor of The Ebony Tower, an online platform created to help scholars from marginalized backgrounds thrive in institutions of higher education and to empower them to speak as experts to a range of audiences.