A Mentor For LIfe

Even outside the Sanford building, Helen Ladd helps bring alumni careers into focus
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September 30, 2014

After taking professor Helen “Sunny” Ladd’s core public policy course, Aliya Pilchen ’13 was eager to sign up for another class taught by Sanford’s foremost expert in education finance. But there was one problem: Pilchen was only a junior, and the class she had her eye on was offered to graduate students.

“I remember talking to my dad on the phone, telling him, ‘She’s a very important person. I can’t just e-mail her out of the blue!’” says Pilchen, now a teaching fellow with Citizen Schools, an education non-profit in Boston. “It’s funny to look back on it now, because she’s so accessible and has taken such an interest in my career and future.”

Since her arrival at Duke in 1986 as an economist, Ladd has garnered admiration for her engaging teaching style and influential research on school choice, accountability, and teacher labor markets, to name a few topics of interest. Her articles and op-eds on hot-button issues, such as vouchers and charter schools, appear widely. She’s also coauthored books on school reform in South Africa and New Zealand with her husband, Edward Fiske, the former education editor of The New York Times.

“I’ve always admired her willingness to step outside standard education policy to look at all sorts of variables, student poverty, and early childhood interventions, for instance,” says Sarah Crittenden Fuller Ph.D. ’13, who was Ladd’s research assistant and coauthored a paper with her. “It pushes all of us to do the same in our own research.”

Ladd has a knack for expanding her sphere of expertise. Through the early 1990s, her research and teaching focused on local and state finance, but in 1994 she took a leave from Duke to join the Brookings Institution, where she “retooled,” she says. “Switching gears to education policy made sense because state and local governments raise most of the revenue for education.”

The transition brought one surprise: “how ideological and emotional education policy is, research included,” Ladd says. “In tax policy people have strong views too, but it didn’t seem so personal.” Education policy tends to summon intense feelings, as the letters page of any newspaper will attest. “I tell my students, rhetoric matters. Consider the phrase ‘No Child left Behind.’ That rhetoric is very effective; who could be opposed to it? But the legislation is deeply flawed.”

Ladd’s mentoring outside the Sanford Building has helped many Sanford alumni find their footing in the field of education policy—whether, like Pilchen, it’s in a classroom, or up the ranks of state government to the U.S. Department of Education, where several of her students have landed.

“Sunny always—in spite of the many things she’s dedicated to—has an eye on her students’ careers,” says Fuller, a research associate with the Education Policy Initiative at UNCChapel Hill. Pilchen agrees. “A few weeks ago she was in Boston for a conference. We met up and she was so curious about my work. She would ask a question and I could hardly answer it before she had another question.” 

  • Louise Flynn is the associate editor at Duke Magazine.