Luke, President @ ReadyCO, CO
"I think [the purpose of schooling] is to allow [students] to maximize their unique potential and chart their own path. I would never presume that the purpose of schooling for one child should be to learn to read and that for another it's civics. Or that for one child it's to inspire curiosity, but another it's to be good at algebra. I would say that the purpose of schooling is to create the scenario where each child could chart their own path."
Luke Ragland is the President of ReadyCO, an organization of conservatives leading the charge for better schools in Colorado. He is an avid gardener who lives in Denver with his wife and daughter. He was interviewed by Nicole, our co-founder, for our #EdLeaders series. Check out other interviews from leaders in the world of education by searching for our "Education Leaders" tag!
Tell me a little about you – who you are and your journey in the world of education.
Luke Ragland, president of Ready Colorado. My journey to my current role is a little bit interesting and somewhat non-traditional. I am a small town kid from southwest Colorado. I come from a family that didn’t really quite understand or promote education in the way that I do, personally, now. We were a really modest family--nobody in my family had ever been to college, and I had the opportunity to do that because I had fantastic educators and folks who opened doors for me as an individual. As I progressed through my life, I had some fantastic opportunities. I got to do things like work at the White House. I remember specifically taking my grandparents--who were migrant farmworkers--into the Oval Office. They were folks who were only able to go to school through eighth grade before they had to start working. That was a really special experience for me.
Ultimately, I ended up going to law school with the encouragement of fantastic teachers, starting all the way from elementary school to college. I was in public school from kindergarten to law school in Colorado. I went to law school and did well there. I got the “great job” you’re supposed to get when you go to law school doing commercial litigation. And I remember distinctly remember sitting at my desk late at night in a fancy office in downtown Denver, and feeling completely unfulfilled. I was feeling like I owed so much more to the people who helped me get where I'm at.
That ultimately led to me working at Colorado Succeeds and now at Ready Colorado. I think it’s about giving back for me and realizing the incredible power of public education. It changed the trajectory my life and my child and my grandchildren's lives. I feel a sense of duty to make sure that everybody in Colorado has that same opportunity. That's what drew me toward it initially.
Take a moment and think about a child you care about. When you’re ready, tell me about that child and what makes them unique and special.
Front of mind for me right now is my new daughter. I find myself thinking a lot about how the policies I work on will impact the education system I want my daughter to be a part of. And it’s actually been really reaffirming--I feel like the policies and vision I'm helping to advance for education in Colorado is what I would want for my daughter, which is a good gut check to make sure that what I'm looking for isn't just for somebody else's kids but these are for everyone’s kids, including my own. I’m a real believer in educational choice and opportunity and making sure that every kid has access to a quality education--for my kid and for every kid.
So, what do I want for Rose? The main thing I want is for her to have as many options in her life as possible. So that means if she wants to be a doctor, she can be a doctor. If she wants to be an artist, then she can be an artist. If she wants to be a scientist, she can do that. I don't know what Rose is going to want for her life, but I want her to be able to make that choice. For me, the concept of freedom without choice is an illusion. If you don't really have a choice, then you're not really free. At it's core, that's what I hope for my daughter.
What do you hope for Rose in her childhood? What’s a good childhood?
Well, of course happiness is a core goal I would have for Rose. Curiosity, and more specifically, the concept of intensification of consciousness. This is an Aldous Huxley concept: The focus of life can’t be solely on making sure that you're feeling happy feelings all the time. It must also be about having the ability to be reflective and understand deeply about the world around you and how you fit into that. I think that is fulfillment, maybe not necessary a focus on happiness alone. I hope that my daughter will have the experiences and perspective to make that a reality.
"For me, the concept of freedom without choice is an illusion.
If you don't really have a choice, then you're not really free. At it's core, that's what I hope for my daughter."
Now, imagine that child is now in their 30s – out of school and starting into adult life. What do you hope for them about their life? What would make it a ‘good’ or ‘successful’ life?
The fundamental premise I have is that I don’t know what would make a good or happy or fulfilling life for Rose. I just want to make sure that whatever barrier that would stop her from choosing a path she wants is broken down for her. I have no idea what will make her happy or help her lead a fulfilling life, so I don’t know exactly how to answer the questions as specifics. But I hope there are no barriers presented to her when she's 30 and creating that path for herself.
Is there anything you worry about getting in the way of them achieving that? Anything that keeps you up at night?
I feel like there’s so many barriers that I worry about to be honest. I worry about the basic academic barriers--will she have the skills that she needs to successful? I think some people take this for granted, but I don't think you should. Maybe it's because I'm so close to the data and I see that it's not always something you can take for granted. Curiosity, innate drive, ambition--those things that are harder to quantify, but are just as important--I worry whether she will have the structure around her to do those things? Because no one knows exactly how to instill those values, I think. No parent or school, or anybody.
Ideally, what role do you think schooling should play in achieving that ideal good life?
I guess school can knock down a lot of those barriers, right? I think school should knock down as many of those barriers to her exercising freedom of choice as it can. For example, if you can’t read, that's an incredible barrier. School has to knock down those basic academic barriers: if you can't do basic math or have an understanding of the scientific process--those are incredible barriers. We take those for granted. I think school first and foremost should knock down those basic barriers. It doesn't do that for everybody. School can also create incredible opportunity by instilling curiosity, a love of learning, and the social skills that are such an important part of life. School can play an important role in opening those opportunities as well.
Do/will schools play the role you think they should for your child? All kids? Some kids?
I don’t know if I would break it down by groups of kids, but probably by different schools. I would say very unequivocally that there are schools doing a fantastic job of breaking down barriers for kids. When you think about breaking down barriers, it's important to remember that some kids have more barriers than other kids. So, I think that there are great examples of schools that have knocked down lots of barriers for kids, but there's lots of schools that aren't, either. Maybe I'm going back to what I was saying previously: if you can't read, that's a barrier that's almost impossible to climb over. There are lots of schools that aren't helping kids get those even very basic skills. But at the same time, there are schools that are helping kids achieve their maximum potential. Frankly, I would put myself in that category. I am already out-punching my weight class and I think a lot of that had to do with the public schooling that I was privileged to have access to--really quality, caring teachers throughout my educational journey that helped me get to where I'm at today. I would not have been close to where I am now without it. It's happening, it has happened, but it isn't happening equally.
Why do you think that is?
I think there's a lot of reasons. At its core, I think it's because our educational system is a command-and-control, top-down model. And that works if you know exactly what the problem is: command-and-control can be a great way to solve a problem if you know exactly what the problem is and how to solve it. When you talk about education and talk about breaking down barriers for every individual kid, we don’t always know what the problem is and how to solve it. And so the command-and-control structure we have in our education system can’t adapt--no hard how people try or how hard they work, I don't think it's set up to address the unique needs of every individual student. So, it begs a question: What do you do to fix it? I think at it's core, we need to change the arrow of decision making and power in education. Instead of it starting at the top and pointing down, think about control and power starting at the bottom and pointing upward. There's a lot of implications from that, but that is the only model that could ever adapt to the individual needs of every student and break down the barriers that they have--that maybe only that student or that family knows that they have.
"At its core, I think it's because our educational system is a command-and-control, top-down model. And that works if you know exactly what the problem is: command-and-control can be a great way to solve a problem if you know exactly what the problem is and how to solve it. When you talk about education and talk about breaking down barriers for every individual kid, we don’t always know what the problem is and how to solve it."
Do you think people agree with you on each of those levels?
Yeah, I think so. I think that people understand that being able to choose your own path is the critical thing. I think everyone understands intuitively that different people want different things, and that different experiences and lifestyles are what make different people happy. I hope that we live in a society that accepts and actually celebrates that there are different ways to live a fulfilled and happy life. On the question on whether people agree with whether schools are providing that: I also think people would agree. There’s lots of debate in the education world about how well schools are doing or what they should be doing differently, but I think everyone understands that there are some schools that are doing a fantastic job and some aren’t serving students adequately.
On the final question about “how” to do it: I don’t think you would find as much agreement there. I think a lot of people think if they can just get the top-down system configured correctly, or come up with just the right type of model, then we can figure out that command-and control problem. I don’t agree with that. My view is much more modest, which is that one person or one governmental body couldn't possibly know the correct way to meet the individual needs of millions of students. So, I think that's where you might find some disagreement.
What do you think the purpose of schooling is for individuals, broadly?
I think it’s to allow them to maximize their unique potential and chart their own path. I would never presume that the purpose of schooling for one child should be to learn to read and that for another it's civics. Or that for one child it's to inspire curiosity, but another it's to be good at algebra. I would say that the purpose of schooling is to create the scenario where each child could chart their own path.
"I think that people understand that being able to choose your own path is the critical thing. I think everyone understands intuitively that different people want different things, and that different experiences and lifestyles are what make different people happy. I hope that we live in a society that accepts and actually celebrates that there are different ways to live a fulfilled and happy life."
What is an empowering learning experience you had – in or out of school?
One of the most empowering learning experiences--it’s so hard to pick one. I think I would actually say that my father provided that. My family runs a small saw mill in southwest Colorado. There was a question about whether or not I was going to go to college my senior year of high school. My family obviously supported me but they didn't have the greatest sense for how to make that happen. I remember asking my dad whether I should go to college and I'll never forget what he said so clearly, “Son, I worked way too hard for you to have to do this.” For me, the message my father was sending me was that education was going to open up doors for me that he had always wanted to be open for me. He did his part by the sweat of his brow. That was really empowering. It stuck with me forever. That was probably the thing that made me understand the value of education and take it so seriously.
Given your understanding of the purpose and problem of school, how is the work you’re doing at your organization working to solve these issues?
That is the crux of what we’re trying to do: decentralize control and put power in the hands of the folks who have the greatest amount of knowledge about what's needed for a student. So that's parents, first and foremost. And also teachers and school leaders, the people who are really close to the students. So, trying to empower those folks is a key to our organization. There’s so much built up in our current educational system that prevent the people who I'm describing--those folks at the ground-level--from exercising any sort of real power. At it's core, what we're trying to do is decentralize control, put the power in the people closest to the student. And that's really our entire mission if you were boiling it down.
What challenges do you foresee?
The biggest challenge is that we’re going to have to ask people who have held unquestioned and unchecked control over a system for 100+ years to let go. That means we need to ask every level of policymakers to let go and empower the people below them more and more. That even means local district people. I think superintendents often think of themselves as "the locus of local control," but my vision is even more decentralized than that. So, asking those people who hold the strings of power now to let go is always a difficult thing to do--that's the biggest challenge.
10,000 Stories. One Shared Vision.
RE-ENVISIONED is a national movement to redefine the purpose of school. We believe schools should foster flourishing individuals and a thriving democratic society. But what does it mean to thrive or flourish?
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