Students reading in school books at a Nigerian school on December 09, 2013, in Niamey, Niger.
Ute Grabowsky—Photothek via Getty Images
By Wendy Kopp
December 12, 2014
IDEAS
Wendy Kopp is the co-founder and CEO of Teach For All and founder of Teach For America.

Nearly 15 years ago, the global community set an unprecedented goal—to give every child access to primary education. We have made progress, but today 58 million children in developing regions remain out of school, and 250 million school-aged children around the world lack basic literacy and numeracy skills.

While the 2015 deadline for delivering on our promise will pass unfulfilled, we are coming to the end of a year that has seen tremendous momentum as the world recognizes the need to improve education: This week, 17-year-old Pakistani education activist Malala Yousafzai became the youngest person ever to accept the Nobel Peace Prize, alongside Indian child rights’ activist Kailash Satyarthi. In June, developing nations, donor nations and NGOs pledged a historic $28.5 billion in new funding to make quality education available to every child. In September, more than 30 organizations made commitments to increase access to quality education for girls as part of the Clinton Global Initiative, and XPRIZE launched a new $15 million challenge to build technology solutions to make quality education more accessible.

This momentum is the result of a growing understanding that if we don’t make a quality education available to every child, no matter where she lives, it will be nearly impossible to accomplish our collective goals: a healthier, more sustainable, peaceful and just world. Recognizing this, the global community is making a push not only to get every child in school, but to ensure every child is learning.

Throughout history, when societies have been faced with big challenges, they’ve put their best people on them. During the Space Race, American and Russian scientists, engineers, astronauts and cosmonauts pushed the bounds of what was possible, and landed men on the moon. World leaders came together and mobilized the talents of scores of doctors and microbiologists in a decades-long effort to successfully eradicate smallpox.

All around the world, we send our top talent into finance, technology, medicine and law—everywhere but towards expanding opportunity for our most marginalized children. If we’re going to give every child a chance to fulfill her potential, this will need to change.

We’ve seen that it can. The 35 Teach For All network organizations around the world are tapping into the rising generation’s appetite to play a part in solving the world’s biggest challenges, initially asking them to commit two years to teach in classrooms in high-need communities and ultimately investing in their development as leaders for long-term change for children. Thousands of people are vying for a chance to become part of the effort. In Pakistan alone this year, more than 2,200 people applied for just 55 places to teach in the most high-need classrooms. In Mexico, more than 3,000 people applied for 116 spots. In India, 13,400 applied for 487 spots.

This initial teaching commitment and the experience it gives participants begins whole careers of fighting for change at every level of the education system, and from the sectors that touch the lives of children in high-need communities—policy, law, health, technology, and economic development. These are still very early days for many of these organizations, but we are beginning to see results.

At Teach For India, which just celebrated its fifth anniversary, 65% of almost 700 alumni are still working to change outcomes for children. They are starting social enterprises to retrain other teachers, creating and leading schools to show what the most marginalized children can achieve, and building the capacity of NGOs and school systems to reach more children.

In communities in the UK and the U.S., where Teach For All organizations have been hard at work for 10 or more years, we see this kind of leadership contributing to meaningful results. Fifteen years ago, there were only five schools in Oakland that met California’s benchmark standards for academic performance. Today, there are more than 40 such schools, and Oakland Unified Schools district ranks as the most improved urban school district in the state. This change is the result of many efforts, including the small schools established in East Oakland. But without the hundreds of teachers placed in Oakland since 1991 through Teach For America, much of the energy pushing the area forward would be missing: Nearly 200 teachers, including 2013’s California Teacher of the Year, administrators at 20% of Oakland schools, the founder of the 2013 Charter School of the Year, and founders and leaders of countless organizations that support schools, children and families in Oakland’s highest-need communities, are all Teach For America alumni.

Earlier this year, I had a chance to travel to Nigeria and visit a school of 600 girls in Lagos. During the hour I was there that morning, I walked from classroom to classroom and only found one with a teacher. The 14- and 15-year-old girls in that one classroom were learning the difference between simple and complex sentences. Several girls I spoke with had spent an hour and a half commuting to teacher-less classrooms.

Imagine how different those classrooms could be if hundreds of Nigeria’s most talented recent graduates and professionals channeled their energy not only into the country’s banks, but into making education in the country a force for transformation. They would make a huge difference to these girls during their time as teachers, and like other teachers throughout the Teach For All network, they would not be able to leave the work. They would become the leaders of new schools, build new teacher recruitment and development systems, lead policy changes and start enterprises aimed at dismantling the roadblocks that keep their students from opportunity.

If we’re going to see sustainable results from all the other investments we’re making in education, we need to build leadership capacity in each and every country. Without it, there is no certainty that 10 years from now, and 10 years after that, we will see rising educational levels and decreasing disparities all around the world. Our collective welfare depends on it.

Wendy Kopp is the co-founder and CEO of Teach For All and founder of Teach For America.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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