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Darby earns grant to study educational inequality

A KU professor has received nearly $40,000 from the Spencer Foundation to conduct research that will examine the nation’s obligation to diminish educational inequality.

Derrick Darby is an associate professor of philosophy and teaches at KU’s law school. He won the grant for “Philosophy and the Racial Achievement Gap,” a project that will generate three major papers over two years, combining Darby’s interest in normative political philosophy, law, economics and history. The three papers are “Cash for Grades and Black Underachievement: A Philosophical Assessment,” “Educational Inequality and the Limits of Justice” and “Educational Inequality, Positive Freedom and Collective Responsibility.”

Derrick Darby

Darby hopes his research will demonstrate the value of joining normative philosophy — which evaluates how things ought to be — with social scientific research on the causes of racial disparities in educational achievement, such as the legacy of slavery and segregation, to understand how and to what extent such gaps should be closed.

“I also hope that this project provides guidance to judges seeking to reach decisions and legislators seeking to make laws pertaining to educational inequality and equal protection in a way that is informed by an empirically informed philosophical account of our nation’s commitment to the ideals of justice, freedom and equality for all,” Darby said. “This is an especially good time for scholarly work on the racial achievement gap given President-elect Obama’s serious commitment to improving our education system.”

Darby’s research should be of interest to public policy makers seeking effective educational policies that can pass moral muster, he said. For instance, part of his research will assess the popular cash-for-grades education policy that has been tested in major public school systems to close the racial achievement gap. Darby hopes to show that the policy stems from an overly narrow explanation of racial inequalities in educational achievement and fails to account for the full range of obstacles to black underachievement, including those created by shortcomings in the delivery of education.

The grant funding will support research trips to South Africa and Brazil and several domestic trips in which Darby will collaborate with researchers working on the same issues. It will also enable him to hire research assistants.

Established in 1962, the Chicago-based Spencer Foundation supports research that investigates ways in which education can be improved around the world. Darby received his grant through the foundation’s initiative on Philosophy in Educational Policy and Practice.

Darby has a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Colgate University and a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Pittsburgh. He taught at Northwestern University and Texas A&M University before joining the KU faculty in 2007. In addition to teaching philosophy and law courses, Darby is a faculty research affiliate with KU’s Institute for Policy and Social Research. He is co-director with Donna Ginther, associate professor of economics, of a new Hall Center for the Humanities seminar on inequality, which will launch in fall 2009 on the theme of educational inequality. He served as faculty adviser for the Kansas Law Review’s 2008 symposium “Law, Reparations and Racial Disparities.” His book, “Rights, Race and Recognition,” will be published this spring by Cambridge University Press.

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