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For Helen “Sunny” Ladd, being an economist means thinking about values.

Since her days at Wellesley College as a FEM – a female economics major – Ladd’s career has been about using the tools of economics to shape policies based a consideration of values and the public interest.

“The market can promote efficiency, but there is no reason to believe it promotes equity or fairness,” she said.

A leading education economist, Ladd sees education as a crucial public good. Her scholarship examines the value that governments place on education as illustrated by how money gets spent -- or not.

“The public interest in education is so compelling that we have made it compulsory. It’s so important to the life chances of an individual,” she said.

The themes of the public good and equity run throughout her 40-year career as a scholar, a professor and an academic administrator.


Ladd and fellow Sanford professor William A. "Sandy" Darity Jr.

Boston Provincial

Ladd grew up in Massachusetts, a self-described “Boston provincial,” in a family where the women went to Wellesley and the men went to Harvard. She followed in her mother’s footsteps by going to Wellesley and majoring in economics.

Her first undergraduate class in economics was taught by the chair of the department, Carolyn Shaw Bell. A gifted mentor, Bell launched many of her students into graduate economics programs. Bell had created a network of former FEMs, and had them write about their experiences to help current students decide on their next steps. One of those letters inspired Ladd to use her Fulbright scholarship to enroll in the master’s program at the London School of Economics in 1967.


Photo of Wellesley College by Flickr user Soe Lin. 

That year in London opened her eyes to the world beyond Boston. The economic theories that were debated in her classes were also a part of a national debate and big economic policy changes, such as the devaluation of the British pound, enacted by the government during that time.  

Being abroad during pivotal events such as Nixon’s campaign for president and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy and discussions with her London colleagues about the news led to an evolution of her political views, which later influenced her scholarship on equity issues.

Returning from London, Ladd moved to New Hampshire with her new husband. With the help of her Wellesley professors, especially Bell, Ladd obtained a position as a visiting lecturer at Dartmouth in the economics department. It was very unusual at the time to be a woman teaching at an all-male college, with only a master’s degree.  

After a year at Dartmouth, “I realized not only how much I enjoyed teaching, but also that I could, with effort, be quite good at it,” she wrote in her autobiographical chapter in the book Eminent Economists II: Their Life and Work Philosophies.

Harvard Years

Ladd entered the PhD program in economics at Harvard University in the fall of 1969. One of her classmates was future Sanford Professor and future research partner Charles Clotfelter.

“I was lucky to be in the same study group with her as she was much better prepared than I was, and much smarter too,” said Clotfelter.

There she studied with her mentor Richard Musgrave, widely viewed as the father of modern public finance. Musgrave believed government had a positive role to play in protecting the collective interest of society and that economics could be a tool to help make government work better.

“In those early days, I thought hard about the importance of policy to promote the public interest,” she said.

old historic red brick building
Harvard University

During her third year as a PhD candidate, Musgrave invited her to write a chapter on local property taxes for a book he was editing. That led to the insight that would inform her work for next 20 years: that in analyzing public finance both the tax side and the budget side had to be considered.

By July 1974, Ladd had earned her PhD and her doctoral thesis, “Local Public Expenditures and the Composition of the Property Tax Base,” was selected as the outstanding dissertation of the year by the National Tax Association-Tax Institute of America.

In the fall, Ladd returned to Wellesley as an assistant professor in the economics department. That first semester, Ladd also faced realities of being among the vanguard of women trying to “have it all”—both a family and career.

“I had two sons, age zero and two, and no maternity leave,” she said. “I was perpetually tired.”

The validation provided by the award for her dissertation helped her make it through, she said.

In 1979, Ladd decided to switch from being a “pure economist” to training professional students, taking a position as an assistant professor in the City and Regional Planning Department at Harvard’s Design School. The department was mostly young faculty and Ladd was able to develop core courses in state and local public finance.

I had two sons, age zero and two, and no maternity leave. I was perpetually tired.

Helen "Sunny" Ladd

Changes in demographics and economics in cities during the 1970s and ‘80s provided a lot of scope for Ladd’s research. The passage of California’s Proposition 13, which rolled back local property taxes, and changes to federal funding and the tax code during the Reagan administration put great pressure on budgets of cities and states.

In 1980, after the voters of Massachusetts passed a proposition similar to California’s Prop 13, Ladd teamed up with sociologist Julie Wilson to study why voters supported the measure. They concluded voters expected it would lower taxes without negative effects on public services. That led to a collaboration with a researcher from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston to look at the effects of such limitations on local taxes and spending, and to being co-editor with Nicolaus Tideman of the book Tax and Expenditure Limitations, published in 1981.

After Ladd had been at the Design School for three years, the department was moved to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, as it had evolved into more of an urban policy program. As a long-established school, the Kennedy School had mostly senior faculty, mostly male, and they were “not unambiguously pleased to have us thrust upon them,” she noted.

There were also no tenured positions in urban policy and no tenured women faculty at Kennedy at the time. Ladd convinced the dean to allow her to compete for a tenured position at the school and in 1986 was considered for a chair in financial management. She had published two books, many articles, written several reports for local governments and served as director of the National Tax Association-Tax Institute of America.

“To no one’s surprise,” Ladd said, she did not get the chair at the Kennedy School. But upon receiving the news, she was able to tell them that the day before Duke had offered her a tenured position, as a full professor of public policy studies.

I realized not only how much I enjoyed teaching, but also that I could, with effort, be quite good at it.

Helen "Sunny" Ladd

Her friend from graduate school, Charles Clotfelter, was among those who had recruited Ladd for the position.  

“Hiring Sunny was one of the best things I did during those four years,” said Phil Cook, professor emeritus of public policy, who was director of what was then called the Institute of Policy Sciences and Public Affairs.

Coming to Duke, Helping Sanford to Grow

The emphasis on both teaching and research was a good fit for Ladd. The students in both the undergraduate and graduate program were strong, and she enjoyed showing them how economics could work as an effective tool for shaping policy. There were good research opportunities. And there were senior female faculty at Duke who were working on making it a supportive place for female scholars.

“This was the right place for me,” she said.

In her second year, Ladd was asked to direct the master of public policy program, which she did for 14 years.

“She had a transformative effect on the MPP program, taking it in a more professional direction,” said Cook.

Ladd introduced the use of case studies into her economics course, a method she had refined at Harvard. “Sunny has always been very intentional about teaching. She got me to use more case studies in my classes, and it just works,” said Clotfelter.


Duke University, 1986

In 1986, Duke University was on the way up. There was some professional risk in moving from the Ivy League to a small program at a good regional university. “I had a sense it would grow into a great place, and I wanted to participate in that,” Ladd said.

She also emphasized the importance of being clear about values in her courses.

“However important efficiency may be as an economic concept, it is only one of many values of interest to policymakers. Consequently, I do not permit my students to confuse ‘efficient’ with ‘optimal’,” she says.

A popular teacher, Ladd has mentored graduate students who have gone on to academic and policy careers, such as Lucy Sorenson, assistant professor at the University at Albany, SUNY, and University of Georgia Assistant Professor Walker Swain.

Sorensen was a PhD student advised by Ladd and “I find myself channeling Sunny” while teaching,” she says.  There are three things Sorensen learned from Ladd that she passes along to her own students: “Do research that matters. Get it right. Recognize the role of values.”

Ladd has received several teaching awards: the Carballo Award from the Kennedy School; and at Duke the Johnson Teaching Award; the Stubbing Teacher Mentor Award; and the University Outstanding Scholar/Teacher Award.

“However important efficiency may be as an economic concept, it is only one of many values of interest to policymakers. Consequently, I do not permit my students to confuse ‘efficient’ with ‘optimal’.”

Ladd also served as assistant director of the Sanford Institute for three years, on numerous search committees for public policy positions, and in administrative roles at the university level.

Soon after the founding of the Duke’s Center for Child and Family Policy (CCFP), Ladd helped secured a grant from the Spencer Foundation to create of the North Carolina Education Research Data Center (NCERDC). The Data Center houses records from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction on the state’s public schools, students and teachers. The data, going back to the mid-1990s, is a treasure of information for policy-oriented research, used by dozens for researchers for almost 300 projects since 2000.

“North Carolina was one of the earliest states to make such data available. I have been using it ever since,” she said.

A New Focus: Education Policy

In 1994, Ladd spent her sabbatical from Duke as a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, where she made a conscious decision to switch gears in her research, from state and local tax issues to education policy. Such a major shift in focus was unusual for a scholar who was already so well established in a particular field.

“By the late 1980s and early ‘90s, issues in education policy were increasing amenable to the tools of economics. School choice, standards of accountability – these are the kinds of things economists think about. Education was emerging as an important policy field,” she said.

During her time at Brookings, she organized a conference on education policy. That led to the publication of her first book in the field, Holding Schools Accountable: Performance-Based Reform in Education, for which she wrote two chapters and served as editor.

The book was well-received and contributed to Ladd being appointed as a co-chair of a National Academy of Sciences committee on school finance. She co-edited two books as a result of that work: Equity and Adequacy in Education Finance: Issues and Perspectives, and Making Money Matter: Financing America’s Schools.

Much of her scholarship for the next two decades revolved around issues of school accountability and equity in education. The NCERDC and state policy programs were fertile ground for research. 

“It was exciting, being in this state when Governor Hunt was rolling out programs such as Smart Start,” she said.

With fellow Sanford professors Ken Dodge and Clara Muschkin, Ladd was able to match data and analyze the impact of the programs on early childhood education in the state. “I am proud of that team, which has a psychologist, a sociologist and an economist working together,” she said.


Her marriage in 1997 to Edward Fiske, former education editor at The New York Times and author of the Fiske Guide to Colleges “opened up intellectual opportunities for me, expanding my work into the international area,” she said.

In their first year of marriage, Ladd used her Fulbright grant to go to New Zealand to look at school choice and competition. She and Fiske wrote their first book together, When Schools Compete: A Cautionary Tale. They later repeated the process in South Africa, when Ladd had another Fulbright grant, writing the book Elusive Equity: Education Reform in Post-Apartheid South Africa.

With the passage of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, the impact of high-stakes testing and holding teachers accountable for student performance became new topics for Ladd’s research. She used data sets from the NCERCD for her studies of North Carolina charter schools, where she found evidence that such schools were increasing segregation and were not uniformly successful in closing the achievement gaps.

With Sanford professors Clotfelter and Jacob Vidgor, she published multiple papers on teacher quality, teacher credentials, student achievement and school segregation. Along with Clotfelter, Ladd has been as a top 100 most influential scholars in education by Education Week for four years in a row.

Ladd studied other systems of holding schools accountable in New Zealand and the Netherlands, which used school inspections instead of test scores.  As the flaws of NCLB became clearer, she came to think that the U.S. could benefit from trying an inspectorate approach, allowing for human judgment to provide guidance to individual schools.

As her reputation as an education policy scholar grew, more professional opportunities opened up. In 2006, Ladd joined the management team of the Center for the Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER), a project financed by the U.S. Department of Education. In 2011, Ladd was president of the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management (APPAM.)

“I am proud of my presidential address for APPAM, where I made a strong argument that the country is moving in the wrong direction,” she said.

The address, “Education and Poverty: Confronting the Evidence,” discussed how educational policies that ignore the evidence on the obstacles to learning faced by disadvantaged students do little to close the achievement gap and may do active harm.

The No Child Left Behind Act “is clearly based on the presumption that the schools themselves can and should offset any educational disadvantages those children bring to the classroom,” Ladd says.

The evidence said otherwise, she says.

Ladd critiqued the problems caused by the Act, such as a large number of schools labeled as failing, low teacher morale and the cheating scandals in Atlanta. The unrealistic goal of 100 percent proficiency for all students also contributed to the failure of the policy, as did the high-pressure on schools and teachers without additional support or resources. The address called for a move away from punitive, test-based accountability systems and toward policies aimed at helping disadvantaged students overcome their challenges, through measures such as early childhood programs, school-based health clinics and high-quality schools.

Featured Audio

Sunny Ladd discusses alternatives to mandated testing

A Gift for Partnership

Collaboration has been a hallmark of Ladd’s career. Collaborators “have brought out the best in me and helped me be far more productive than I would have been on my own,” she said.  

At Harvard’s Design School, she participated in a lunch discussion group of faculty working on state and local finance. Ladd published two books with one of the members, John Yinger. He credits the group and her own jointly authored book Discrimination in Mortgage Lending, for his own subsequent book, The Color of Credit. Other group members have also been highly productive.

Ladd and Yinger developed methods of measuring the fiscal capacity of local governments that were used by Massachusetts policy makers in a program to equalize state aid to cities and towns. Yinger cites Ladd’s success throughout her career in translating academic work in ways that influence policy to her willingness to invest the time and energy in building relationships.

“If you draw a map of collaborations with Sunny, it looks like a human brain,” Yinger said at the festschrift in her honor in the spring of 2017.


At Sanford, Ladd co-authored 19 education policy papers with Clotfelter and Vigdor, who is now at the University of Washington. She has also worked with Dodge and Muschkin on the impact of early childhood programs on student achievement, and has several more papers in the process of publication.

Clotfelter points to three qualities that make Ladd such a good partner: “She’s smart, she’s dogged and has seemingly limitless energy.”  

Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute pointed to Ladd’s ability to “recruit a broad and prestigious group” in support of A Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, a national task force of policy experts. The group, which Ladd co-chaired until it ended in 2017, included not only academics but three Surgeon Generals, civil rights and religious leaders, and Nobel economist James Heckman, all of whom signed a letter printed as full-page ad in The New York Times in 2008, critiquing the No Child Left Behind Policy.

Perhaps the most remarkable partnership is the one with her husband, Edward Fiske. They have conducted education research in several countries: New Zealand, South Africa, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, exploring what Ladd calls “the global marketplace of ideas in education.”

Featured Audio

Sunny Ladd discusses gains in academic performance of many students in England.

They combined their skills for their books. Ladd would do the data analysis, Fiske would use his journalism skills to interview teachers and administrators in the schools, and both would talk with policymakers.

Fiske attributes part of their success to one important practice: the ten o’clock rule. “No mention of the book after 10 p.m.,” he said.


Educational Goods: Values, Evidence, and Decision-Making

For her newest book, Educational Goods: Values, Evidence, and Decision-Making, (forthcoming in late 2017 from the University of Chicago Press), Ladd worked with two philosophers and another social scientist to ask what society should expect from education.


They define educational goods as “the knowledge, skills, attitudes and dispositions that children develop both for their own benefit and the benefit of others.”  These goods include more than just cognitive skills, but also capacities that lead to flourishing, such as knowing how to work, be a good citizen, and treat others with respect and dignity. The book also discusses three distributive values that are necessary to make good decisions about education: equality, adequacy and benefitting the less advantaged.

“I hope people recognize the concept of educational goods as a big idea. We want to give people new language to discuss education,” Ladd said.

As a professor emeritus of public policy and economics, Ladd has retired from teaching, but she is continuing her research and writing, thinking and collaborating.

“Getting people to think about values is important. Only then can you figure out what policy options will realize the values you care about,” she said.