Ladd Receives University Scholar/Teacher Award

Economist known for research, teaching that addresses real world issues

Helen "Sunny" Ladd

For Helen "Sunny" Ladd receiving the 2012 University Scholar/Teacher Award is true validation of one of her goals for an academic career.

"At heart I'm a teacher," said Ladd, the Edgar T. Thompson Distinguished Professor of Public Policy and professor of economics at Duke's Sanford School of Public Policy. "The reason I got a Ph.D. was so I could teach at the university level. I had the unusual experience of being able to teach at a first-class college [Dartmouth] before I got my Ph.D., and that really turned me on to the activity of teaching.

"But I also knew I wanted to do research. So I've been really fortunate to teach at a research university, because the type of teaching that I like to do is closely related to the research and other professional activities I'm pursuing."

The University Scholar/Teacher of the Year Award, established by the Division of Higher Education of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the United Methodist Church, will be presented Thursday at the Academic Council meeting. Open to faculty across the university, the award recognizes faculty excellence in connecting teaching and research. William Chafe of history won the award in 2011.

"Schools and Social Policy," a course for both undergraduate and graduate students that Ladd has taught since 1996, embodies the nexus point of her research and hands-on instruction.

"All students have various types of experience with education, so there's this wonderful interaction. I'm learning from their own experiences, they're learning from each other, and I'm relating that directly to the types of research and policy engagement that I'm involved in."

In the "Schools and Social Policy" course, students are presented with data for all school districts within a state across time -- for example, per pupil spending and student  demographics -- and asked to evaluate  the  equity and educational adequacy of the state's school finance system.

"For many of the students, particularly the undergraduates, it's the first experience they've had with working with this type of data, and it really raises their confidence. So by the time we get to the group projects at the end of the term, some of the groups do a lot of sophisticated data analysis, because they've gained confidence earlier in the term."

Ladd also aspires to tie her research, and classroom teaching, to real world problems, both domestic and international. From 1996-99 she co-chaired a National Academy of Sciences Committee on Education Finance that resulted in two books offering recommendations for policymakers.  Ladd "always insists that the work done at Sanford be at the highest level and policy-relevant," said Sanford Dean Bruce Kuniholm.

"One of the things that makes Sunny such a good teacher is that she is a leading scholar in the field of education policy; indeed, her great teaching flows from her research and her passion for "'getting it right,'" Kuniholm said.

Her teaching excellence extends to student mentoring and academic program administration.  For 15 years, Ladd was director of graduate studies for the Masters of Public Policy program and was instrumental, Kuniholm said, in integrating the core MPP courses into a model professional curriculum. For her work in the classroom and advising graduate and undergraduate students, she won Duke's Howard Johnson Teaching Award in 1994 and Sanford's Richard Stubbing Teacher/Mentor Award in 2006.

She also has received numerous honors for her research and professional work: Ladd was president of the National Tax Association in 1993-94 and of the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management in 2011.  That same year, she was elected to the National Academy of Education, which cited her two decades of notable research on education policy issues.

The University Teacher/Scholar Award, which carries a $2,000 honorarium, honors Ladd for her work in a field that was once almost the exclusive bastion of men. As an economics major at Wellesley, Inspired by her mentor, Carolyn Shaw Bell, Ladd strives to play a similar role with her students.

"As long as I can influence some people to continue on or get excited about the things I'm teaching and the way I approach the world and the work I do, that's very satisfying to me. I love being in a public policy program as an economist because I'm a big believer in the value of the economic analysis and a big believer that there are a lot of insights that come from that analysis. But I'm also the first to say that economics does not have all the answers."

Ladd's insight into educational policy has made her a valued authority on a fraught subject. Her recent research has tackled numerous hot button education issues, including poverty and student achievement, charter schools, market-based educational reforms and school and teacher evaluations.  Her husband Edward Fiske, co-author of two books on educational policy in New Zealand and South Africa, is the former education editor of the New York Times and author of the "Fiske Guide to Colleges."

"I think as a country we need to acknowledge that a lot of kids are coming to school from impoverished family backgrounds. It's not that they can't learn, but the issues associated with poverty impede their ability to learn: those might be health problems  or lack of exposure to words and vocabulary as a child, and in many cases, including here in North Carolina, just hunger. We need to address those issues if we want educational outcomes to improve."

Nevertheless, Ladd is mindful not to present her strongly held beliefs as gospel.

"It's important in my teaching to make sure that students understand there are arguments on both sides. My own starting point is that government has an important role to play, and one of the challenges we have as we educate the next generation of policy makers and citizens is to help them understand the ways in which they can make government work better to do the things that are absolutely essential to make this a fair and well functioning society."