The UN General assembly was buzzing on September 25th. Pope Francis and Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai addressed the gathering of 193 world leaders. Singer Shakira, a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador who advocates for early childhood education, chimed in with a song. When all was said and done, the world leaders got down to the work at hand and ratified the much anticipated Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Unlike the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the SDGs are the product of an inclusive effort and 2+ years of hard work of the Open Working Group and civil society organizations. The goals are a comprehensive roadmap to end poverty and cover topics from food security to gender equality and actions to combat climate change. Included is an ambitious goal to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.
This is key because the SDGs are not just about people in far flung corners of the world. They are about all of us. They address issues that affect children in Ferguson, Missouri, as much as children in Nigeria. They are global in nature and are meant to influence how all nations take action to meet them. At a high level meeting, which featured speakers such as Nobel Peace Prize winners Kailash Satyarthi and Malala, United Nations Special Envoy on Education Gordon Brown, and UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, the Global Education First Initiative Youth Advocacy Group called on those in attendance to move from “promises to progress”.
At the U.S. Department of Education, our mission, first and foremost, is to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access. While the challenges we face may not be at the same scale as in the developing world, they are challenges nonetheless.
Speaking at the National PTA Conference, Secretary Arne Duncan affirmed that “Giving every child an equal opportunity to learn is the central challenge of our era, and will determine whether our nation grows stronger or struggles in years ahead.”
Just as lifelong learning is a priority in the SDGs, Secretary Duncan has highlighted its importance in the domestic agenda: “So if we are serious about providing all our children with good choices in life, if we are serious about our nation’s economic strength, it’s this simple: We must get rid of the obsolete belief that a quality education begins at age five and ends at age eighteen.”
Over the past year, we, as Americans, have been asking ourselves some tough questions about equality in our society. Secretary Duncan has said that change “will only happen because we, as a nation, make a deliberate choice for equity. A deliberate choice to insist on excellence for all of our nation’s students.” These sentiments are shared by the 193 world leaders gathered at the UN over the weekend. For all the world’s children, the path that leads away from poverty and despair towards a future full of hope and promise starts with quality education.
Rebecca Miller is an International Affairs Specialist at the U.S. Department of Education.