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Annual Niemeyer Series Welcomes Dr. Sharon Ryan

Posted by Bank Street on May 10, 2017

On April 19, Dr. Sharon Ryan, Director of the newly founded Straus Center for Young Children and Families at Bank Street College, delivered a lecture titled “Progressive Pedagogies and Public Policy: Reasserting Bank Street’s Research Presence in Debates About How Best to Use Early Childhood Education to Address Inequities.” Her speech was part of the Niemeyer Series, an annual forum held at Bank Street that examines contemporary issues in education.

In her speech, Dr. Ryan, who joined the Bank Street community in the spring of 2017, addressed the methods that Bank Street can use moving forward to strengthen its reputation as a research institution to help play a more active role in shaping policy and practice. She explained that in order for progressive-based practices and pedagogies to become part of official policies and systems, educators must prove the strengths of such practices through research. Through this work, Bank Street can effect change in education on a larger scale.

“We’re known as a producer of exceptional teachers, exceptional leaders, exceptional museum workers, and exceptional educators in hospitals and play spaces. Very few people have that reputation,” Dr. Ryan told the audience. “A carefully thought out research agenda that is grounded in key problems of practice faced by practitioners can help give educators the support they need to implement better practices. [Our new] research agenda must be comprised of a series of rigorous approaches that allow us to both describe and show changes in practice and, hopefully, improvements for young children.”

In addition to the College’s prominent standing in the progressive education sphere, Dr. Ryan argued that a new and clearly defined research agenda is crucial for building a “sustained case for the relevance and impact of progressive practices.”

Dr. Ryan reflected on the earliest years of Bank Street, which originated as a place of research founded by Lucy Sprague Mitchell to better understand the kinds of environments best suited for children’s learning and growth. “We should build on this legacy, but we have to rethink the way we do research at Bank Street if we are to reinsert ourselves as leaders of education reform,” she said. “We have to reinsert ourselves in policy debates and research discourses so that people listen and they know that what we say about our research has merit.” She also argued that while the qualitative research done by Sprague Mitchell pioneered progressive education and proved to be valuable to educators, Bank Street’s approach will have to move beyond “qualitative storytelling” to become more “methodologically flexible in a new data-driven era.” In addition, she expressed a need for Bank Street to define common terms in education in their own ways to differentiate their work and distinguish their approach.

“We can have words like ‘intentional teaching’ or ‘teaching for social justice,’ but they’re not helpful if we don’t define them and actually create ways to look at them so other people understand them,” Dr. Ryan explained. She also encouraged Bank Street to collaborate strategically with other institutions and research centers.

Cecelia Traugh, Dean of the Graduate School of Education, expressed her confidence in Dr. Ryan’s expertise and strong knowledge base. “Sharon is a researcher to her bones and, as such of course, she maintains integrity to established research methods,” she said. “At the beginning of the search process for the Director of the Straus Center, Sharon expressed a keen interest in the center’s focus on research that is based on a deep understanding of practice that is focused on covering solutions to benefit practitioners.”

The Straus Center for Young Children and Families at Bank Street was founded to advance research and policy in the realm of early childhood development and learning from birth to age eight. In his opening remarks at the Niemeyer Series, Bank Street President Shael Polakow-Suransky, GSE ’00, highlighted the Straus Center’s role in producing and sharing new research to support the practitioners and leaders who work with children and make decisions about how to best educate our nation’s children.

“The idea behind the Straus Center is that there is a real need to find an evidence base for progressive early childhood practice and connect that evidence to the real people who are going to use it,” he said. “This is a moment when early childhood education is getting a lot of new resources and a lot of public attention, and big decisions are going to be made in the coming years that are going to deeply affect teachers and educators and children, and we need a progressive voice and evidence to support that voice.”

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Lynn Straus, Dr. Sharon Ryan, and Bank Street President Shael Polakow-Suransky

tagged: niemeyer, sharon ryan