01/17/2013 02:42 pm ET Updated Mar 19, 2013

Partnering to Tackle the Global Education Crisis

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Last year, acting on a promise made in his State of the State address, Governor Andrew Cuomo brought together a group of 25 leaders in education, business, and government to form his own Education Reform Commission. Over the following eight months, the Commission spoke with parents, students, educators, and legislators across the state to develop long-term solutions that would raise student achievement and make our education system more cost-effective.

As the founder of PENCIL, an organization created to engage the public -- and businesses especially -- in New York City public schools, I have the honor of serving on Governor Cuomo's Commission. While our backgrounds and perspectives are diverse, the members work together because of one shared objective: to give New York's children the education that they deserve, that our state's economy desperately needs, and that our taxpayers can afford. The preliminary recommendations we developed to improve teacher quality and recruitment, expand the use of technology, better allocate resources, and boost student achievement, will go a long way towards meeting that goal.

The Commission's work may seem unremarkable today, but just a decade ago it would have been unimaginable. During the 1990s, in New York City and urban school districts across the country, local leaders were barely engaged in a conversation about how to provide a high-quality education to our students. High school graduation rates in big cities hovered around 50 percent, and few politicians voiced outrage, let alone concern. Since then, much has changed: Mayors from New York to Chicago to Washington, D.C. have held themselves accountable and assumed responsibility for the success of public schools; teachers have acknowledged that they must be evaluated in a more thoughtful way; and districts have embraced new curriculum standards that prepare students for college and careers.

Many factors led to the growth of these and other recent reforms, but one of them cannot be overstated: a public conversation and acknowledgment among community and business leaders, policymakers, and educators that our schools were in crisis and in need of drastic change. As many experts have noted, school systems require true partnerships and investments from the entire community in order to truly flourish. Fortunately, that public discourse and investment has finally emerged in most developed countries, including the four to which I "belong" -- the U.S. (where I live), Canada (where I am from), the U.K. (where I was partially educated), and Israel (where much of my family lives). Sadly, the same cannot be said for many developing nations around the world.

If we are to treat education as a human right the way we treat access to basic needs like food and water, we must recognize a crisis that exists in the world's poorest nations. There are currently 61 million children -- largely concentrated in 10 nations -- who receive virtually no formal education and tens of millions more whose schooling ends after only a few years. Nearly 250 million children in developing countries go to school but reap little in return that will give them a fair chance in life. In Mali, for example, 90 percent of children are unable to read a single word at the end of grade two. In Uganda, that number is 50 percent, and in Honduras it's 33 percent. With more than 300 million young people between the ages of 12 and 24 living in developing countries, we remain woefully short of the global community's goal of achieving universal primary education by 2015.

These statistics are not new, nor have they gone unnoticed. In an attempt to mobilize the will and resources necessary to move the needle in a meaningful way and identify strategies to educate tens of millions more children, major players in the global education community - from the World Bank to the World Economic Forum -- are proposing targeted solutions and an increased emphasis on public-private partnerships. Just as cities and states across the U.S. helped corporations recognize their interest in a strong school system that boosts economic growth and creates a talented workforce, groups like the Global Business Coalition for Education and The Latin American Network of Civil Society for Education are now working to persuade companies to contribute more to global education.

This month, in San Francisco, Sarah and Gordon Brown will co-host an event with Twitter CEO Dick Costolo and Emerson Collective's Laurene Powell Jobs and gather the United States' top tech firms alongside the Global Business Coalition for Education to brainstorm the power of ways in which their ideas and resources thoughtfully invested can transform opportunities for children around the world. With technology's ability to translate text instantaneously from one language to another; deliver libraries of thousands of books to a single handheld device; convert text to speech so learning is inclusive to children with disabilities; and provide transparent management and payment infrastructures, the potential is infinite. With several groups like this working to replicate the success of public-private partnerships in wealthier countries, the potential for providing students in poverty a basic, quality education is unprecedented. As Justin van Fleet, a fellow at the Brookings Institution wrote in a 2011 study, "corporations have enormous potential to better use their unique assets and minimize their liabilities in philanthropy directed to global education."

In New York, our public schools have come a long way since the years of neglect and dysfunction, thanks to bold leadership in many corners of our community and government --and through the work of organizations like PENCIL to engage the business community in our students' success. Years from now, I am optimistic that we'll be able to say the same of public education across the globe.