In 2002, 30 percent of fourth-grade students in the United States were reading at or above
proficiency levels. Seventeen years later, in 2019, that number had risen only to 36 percent. In
some places, it has actually declined.
Frankly, I am horrified not only by the lack of progress after nearly two decades, but also how
low the number is in the first place. In the richest country in the world, it’s shameful.
In 1940, 90 percent of children were earning more than their parents. In 2017, that number was
below 50 percent at a time when the cost of living, especially for basic needs, is significantly
greater than it has ever been. No wonder the American dream is fading.
In my last blog post, I wrote about the many dysfunctions I believe have come to define what I
and others call the Nonprofit Industrial Complex. Our inability to come to a consensus on what
should be the results of all our work is, I believe, the most pervasive. We need to come to
an agreement on the primary indicators along the Pathway to Lifelong Success and set targets. If we
do, our efforts will naturally become more aligned and focused, and society can hold us
accountable for our work.
How do we accomplish that? We could learn something from the United Nations Programmes
Sustainable Development Goals. If you click on the link, you’ll see the goals. Click on each
goal, and you get a clear definition of what it means and the scope of the challenge. Click
further, and you come to specific global targets expressed in numbers and years which makes
Imagine if we did for the Pathway to Lifelong Success what those UN goals do for international
development. Imagine a clear definition of what everything means along the pathway and a
series of specific targets that would propel us as a country to come together to increase the
numbers of people moving along the pathway. From those national targets, we could set local
targets that are meaningful, around which we could organize to take action, and that can be
That’s why I was so impressed when Dr. Sharon Contreras, the superintendent of schools in
Guilford County, North Carolina (where I’ve been working lately) took the bold move in 2018 of
the setting, publicly, her objective to increase end-of-third-grade reading proficiency not generally
but specifically, from a baseline of 51.4 percent to 63 percent by 2022.
In all my time working in our sector, I have never encountered anyone making that kind of
public commitment to a measurable change by a set date. When school districts set goals, it’s
almost always like this: We’re going to get those reading proficiency levels up! But Dr.
Contreras made the target clear and specific, and went to the school committee and got its
It’s true that recently the Guilford County schools had to notch down the target to 54 percent of
students reading at third-grade proficient levels by 2022, citing a systemic issue with the
strategy at the state level that could be about funding, legislation, and or policies. This stuff is
hard, and as the Greensboro News & Record; Record reports, district leaders think it would be
counterproductive to frustrate teachers with a goal that would require far beyond breakout
performance. The fact that the target was reduced is not a bad thing; it was an important step in
acknowledging the reality of how hard it will likely be to move any numbers on the Pathway to
Lifelong Success. We need more leaders putting themselves out there and setting targets like Dr.
On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy said, I believe we possess all the resources and
talents necessary. But the facts of the matter are that we have never made the national decisions
or marshaled the national resources required for such leadership. We have never specified long-
range goals on an urgent time schedule, or managed our resources and our time so as to ensure
their fulfillment. JFK was talking about putting a man on the moon. Imagine if we did the same
for indicators along the pathway. Why can’t we set national, state, and local targets for reading
proficiency, as Dr. Contrares has done?
As one colleague recently told me, people are afraid to set targets because of the potential fallout
if they don’t get met. Elected officials fear they won’t get reelected, Superintendents are afraid
their contracts won’t be renewed. Executive directors and program managers worry they’ll lose
funding or get fired. The result: the people for whom they’re supposed to work suffer.
We are far from agreeing on indicators, let alone having a culture that embraces setting targets,
but here’s a small step you can take. Get together with your colleagues and see whether you can
identify one specific indicator along the Pathway to Lifelong Success something evidence
shows make a difference in keeping people moving forward as opposed to something that’s just
a snapshot in time and something to which your work contributes.
For example, if you work with middle school students, it could be eighth-grade math proficiency. If you get that far,
discuss what you might do differently to focus on improving that one indicator.
We cannot wait for others to take action. We need to start doing this ourselves.
* * *
As I do from time to time, I have selected the song Man in the Mirror by Michael Jackson to
accompany this blog post. It’s a song you can dance to, but also one with a great message: If
you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself, and then make a change.