Q&A with Dr. Sharon Ryan, Author of One of the Most Read Articles of 2018

GSE faculty member Dr. Sharon Ryan’s article, “What Guides Pre-K Programs?” was listed as being one of the top-viewed articles of 2018 according to the Teachers College Record. This Q&A highlights the work and dedication Dr. Ryan has put into the field of early childhood education and her expertise in the field.


Q. What initially inspired you to work in early childhood education?

A. During high school, I participated in a child development course where I worked with children in a preschool once a week. I loved this opportunity because 4-year-olds are full of ideas, excited about the world and keen to learn. I was and still am a firm believer that education can play a major role in equalizing opportunities for children so I put the two together and studied early childhood education.


Q. Why do you think policy standards alone are not indicative of Pre-K programs’ day-to-day practices? Do you think that there needs to be stricter regulation of early childhood education programs?

A. Policy standards alone are not indicative of the day to day practices in preschool settings because preschools are living and learning communities where children, educators, families, and leaders come together. Pre-K programs are socially and culturally constructed and those who enact Pre-K programs shape and adapt standards to suit local purposes and values. Therefore, standards no matter how explicit are interpreted and enacted differently in different contexts.


Q. In the article, you write about how many early childhood educators push back against regulated standards because “holding all children to the same standard guarantees that some will face failure”. If there are no minimum standards used to benchmark successes, how do you propose states go about regulating Pre-K program effectiveness?

A. Many of the educators in this study did not push back but felt pressured to conform to didactic academic instruction because their colleagues in K-3 did not think that using developmentally appropriate practices where curriculum and teaching are cognizant of children’s cultures, development, and individual learning needs was readying children for school. In other words, K-3 educators were expecting many of these teachers to change their practice rather than thinking about how instruction in the early elementary years needs standards that are necessary to track progress. What my colleagues Beth Graue, Kaitlin Northey, Bethany Wilinski and Amato Nocero are suggesting is that these standards are not always created with consideration of local conditions and that young children vary enormously in their developmental and learning approaches, experiences and needs. In other words, we need high-quality standards like we have in NJ to guide programs but we also need to understand how local actors and communities shape standards, sometimes for good or for bad. What we need to be able to discuss at the policy level is what local adaptations are acceptable and what are not and why do some local sites not meet necessary standards.  And therefore, how we can ensure that anything that undermines the quality of a program, of curriculum and instruction is prevented.


Q. With allowing policies to be interpreted and translated into local contexts to meet the needs of a student demographic, how do you go about comparing the success of students who may be learning from teachers with different interpretations of policy guidelines?

A. School reform studies of K-12 settings show that teachers vary in how they implement standards and we continue to compare student test scores regardless of differences in teachers’ interpretations of standards. If anything differences in standards implementation may be one of the reasons why we may not see improvements in student progress. Regardless of teachers’ interpretations or differences in implementation of some standards, longitudinal data on NJ’s Pre-K program suggests that children who attended public Pre-K continue to show ongoing academic success.


Q. Despite the state of New Jersey having a strong regulatory approach to Pre-K programs, why do you think there were many differences in the actual implementation of educational practices?

A. As I have mentioned previously, there were differences in the implementation of standards because some Pre-K teachers felt pressured by leaders and kindergarten teachers that they had to teach children academic content and many felt the only way to do this was to adjust the developmentally appropriate curricula they were using. Others adjusted the curriculum because families and communities in which they worked were asking for changes.


Q. What was the most challenging part of conducting this study and was there any part of your findings that was particularly surprising to you?

A. The most challenging part of this study was that it was so intense in terms of data collection. In each state, we visited 3 Pre-K programs weekly, observing 2 focal children in each classroom and helping out with daily routines. We also interviewed leaders, teachers, visited family homes and interviewed families and also talked to state policymakers. What was most surprising for me was how despite 2 very different policy contexts in Pre-K, we found similarities across both states. Wisconsin gives districts complete control over what Pre-K looks like whereas NJ has a highly regulated program. I was also surprised by what I saw in kindergarten classrooms and what young children were being expected to do. Young children were being told to not move and were instructed in large groups most of the time. The kindergarten day was highly controlled when we know young children learn best through inquiry by constructing knowledge through interaction with others and materials.


Q. What are your personal recommendations in terms of policy regulation for early childhood education programs? What is your ideal vision for early childhood education regulation in the next few years?

A. My recommendation re policy from this study is that NJ has a much higher quality of Pre-K programming because of its clear and explicit policies. We need to find ways to support leaders so they are able to articulate these policies into action while also recognizing that some adaptations will be made.


Q. How does the national conversation surrounding early childhood education and your work in this article contribute to and broaden the GSE’s commitment to Advancing Excellence and Equity in Education?

A. Access to high-quality early childhood programming is an equity issue. The research base on the long -term impacts of high-quality preschool shows that children who do get access to a high quality early education are more likely to succeed in school and in their adult lives than those who don’t. In other words, early childhood education provides a foundation for all children and helps to level the playing field for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. So the research I have conducted along with that of my colleagues like Steve Barnett and Ellen Frede at NIEER, and Carrie Lobman in the Department of Learning & Teaching helps move our agenda toward achieving excellence and equity. Our research is about advocating for young children and families, as well as early childhood educators who are underpaid and undervalued.


Q. You are clearly a leader in the field – what drives you and your passion for this work?

A. What drives my passion for this work is that I want in my lifetime to see early education to be recognized for the essential contributions it makes to children’s education in the short and long term.  I loved teaching kids then I became a leader and now I am an academic. I have moved into different roles because each role allows me to reach a wider audience, to help the public to understand that every child, no matter who they are, who they are born to or where they live has the right to a high-quality early education. Moreover, part of that quality includes being taught by a well-compensated, well- educated educator.


Q. What is your vision for your work over the next 5-10 years?

A. To teach is one of the most rewarding and challenging undertakings yet so undervalued. I conduct the research I do so that eventually, I hope early childhood educators and the work they do will be held in high esteem. So the next decade of my career will continue to focus on early childhood teachers and leaders including their professional preparation and ongoing professional development. I also will continue to work with the NJ Department of Education, helping them to use research to improve policy and practice.