Ready for college, work, life … and the military?

You wouldn’t expect an organization of retired generals to publicly take on the issue of how well third graders read. But the group called Misson: Readiness has done just that, and all of us who carry out Ready by 21 strategies or simply care about youth should take heed.

I certainly listened last month as retired Major General John Comstock, speaking at the annual conference of Grantmakers for Children, Youth and Families in San Francisco, explained why he and his colleagues are championing the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading. The campaign (a collaboration of dozens of foundations and advocacy groups) sets reading on grade level by third grade as its target – then nimbly positions that objective as a strategy for such upstream goals as high school graduation and college success.  

The more I heard from Comstock, the more I saw how well Ready by 21, Mission: Readiness and the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading align. All three are about getting our young people ready for success and insist on precision to get them there.  

Ready by 21 sets a big goal – getting all young people ready for college, work and life – but its power lies in providing precise answers to key questions, such as, “How do we know if they are ready?”  and “What do we have to do to get them ready?” We have to define the target (“Ready for what?”); define what it means to be on track to “hit” the target; identify the characteristics associated with readiness; and identify reliable, obtainable measures of success.

We call that bringing precision to your passion.

No organization more exemplifies the value of such precision than the U.S. military. When soliders aren’t ready – really ready – people die unnecessarily. The military invests heavily in training and in readiness assessments each step of the way, from recruitment to assignment, to ensure that the money spent on training produces the expected results.

Some years ago, U.S. military leaders noticed a disturbing development: more and more young people couldn’t even get into the training. Mission: Readiness, a nonprofit composed of more than 200 retired generals, estimates that 75 percent of our 17- to 24-year-olds cannot serve in the military because they “are too physically unfit, haven’t graduated high school (the minimum requirement for military service) or have a criminal record.”

Mission: Readiness has been pushing for “smart investments in the next generation of American children,” embracing a wide range of youth development principles. This effort is not just about getting young people ready for the Marines. “Whether young people join the military or not,” the generals have said, “we must increase investments so that all young people can get the right start and succeed in life – whatever career path they choose.”   

You can see how Mission: Readiness fits perfectly with Ready by 21 and with the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, which the generals have publicly endorsed. The campaign focuses on three strategies that require broad community engagement: school readiness, school attendance and summer learning. Those barriers cannot be budged without the involvement of parents; early childhood and youth organizations; social service organizations; and the faith, civic and business sectors. The campaign is spearheaded by Ralph Smith, executive vice president of the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

It’s heartening to see youth-focused efforts that start from different places land on the same core message: that readiness in young adulthood requires early, sustained and coordinated investments from all sectors of society. And that readiness also requires precise investments along this continuum – which means focused efforts like the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading.  

We’ve learned through Ready by 21 that to reach the big goal – getting young people ready for college, work, life and, yes, the military  – we must zoom out to see the big picture, then zoom in to fix it. Mission: Readiness shows us how.