By 2022, 90 percent of Janesville third-graders will be reading at or above grade level.

That’s a promise.

In the first year at his new job, Janesville Superintendent Steve Pophal made this and several other promises, going out of his way to explain he doesn’t mean “goals.” He means promises. Being also a parent, he understands the difference between guaranteeing a result and hoping to achieve it, and he presumably knows breaking a promise comes with consequences, namely loss of credibility.

When parents make a promise, they better be darn sure they can deliver. Does Pophal know with how to deliver 90 percent reading proficiency for district third-graders?

As a goal, it would be extraordinarily ambitious. As a promise, it strikes us as disingenuous—unless nobody is to take Pophal literally. In the world of public education, lofty phrases are common place amid mediocrity. In this context, Pophal is perhaps using the word “promise” as a motivator and is trying to instill in his fellow educators an anything-is-possible attitude. He’s urgent about improving children’s education, and for that we cannot fault him.

Pophal doesn’t talk about “promises” with a wink and a nudge—he seems to sincerely believe 90 percent reading proficiency is attainable within five years, though only 58 percent of third-graders currently read at grade level or above.

If the district raised that number to even 70 percent in five years, this would be a laudable accomplishment. But Pophal isn’t talking about incremental gains. He’s calling for an educational revolution, even though seasoned educators recognize student achievement is largely out of the school system’s control. Furthermore, even if learning outcomes were entirely within the district’s control, budget constraints would likely prevent the district from taking necessary measures to get third-graders closer to that 90 percent mark.

So again, we circle back to what does Pophal mean when he says “promises” and why insist on calling them such? If he’s trying to make a rhetorical point, it’s at the expense of diluting the word’s meaning. If we start treating promises as goals, they stop being promises. Goals are something we strive to accomplish, and there’s no shame in falling short. Goals don’t guarantee results. Promises do.

Pophal brings a boldness to his position, and of course we like bold leaders and celebrate them on this page. But we also need realistic leaders.

To be successful, Pophal doesn’t have to make promises—not a single one. Before Pophal arrived at his position, nobody would have expected him to deliver 90 percent reading proficiency, least of all the teachers who work on the front lines and understand that no amount of instructional enhancements can compensate for a bad home life. Sure, the district can do more to reach out to parents of kids struggling in school, and student disadvantages can’t be used as an excuse for poor academic performance, but there are practical limits to affecting student home lives.

It’s not realistic, or even fair, to expect educators to overcome all barriers to student achievement, such as poverty, malnutrition, abuse, neglect or parental drug addiction.

Pophal seems to have made a rookie mistake, but we truly hope we’re wrong. If 90 percent of Janesville third-graders are reading at or above grade level by 2022, we will freely admit to being wrong on this page.

And that’s a promise.

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