Arne Duncan serves as U.S. Secretary of Education

As Nelson Mandela says, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

Education is the key to eliminating gender inequality, to reducing poverty, to creating a sustainable planet, to preventing needless deaths and illness, and to fostering peace. And in a knowledge economy, education is the new currency by which nations maintain economic competitiveness and global prosperity.

Education is an investment, and one of the most critical investments we can make. This is true not only for the United States, but for countries around the world.

The UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of providing universal primary education to all and eliminating gender inequities, has propelled many nations and multi-governmental organizations to boost educational spending. But the work is not easy, and many countries are falling short of achieving these goals, particularly the 2015 target date that was set when the goals were adopted in 2000.

Today, around the globe, an estimated 61 million primary-aged children are out of school, almost half of them in conflict-affected poor countries. Too often, even those students who do go to school finish without basic literacy and numeracy skills: it is estimated that 250 million children cannot read, write or count well.

Expanding educational access for girls is not just an urgent economic and social need. In many cases, it is literally a matter of life and death. A mother who can read can better protect her children from chronic illnesses, from AIDS, and from dying young. A child born to a mother who can read is 50 percent more likely to survive past age five. And in Africa’s poorest states, UNESCO projects that the lives of 1.8 million children could have been saved if their mothers had at least a secondary education.

In announcing his Global Education First initiative, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reminded us that, “We cannot afford to waste the talents of a generation.” He related this to his own experience growing up in the Republic of Korea as it recovered from war. “People today often ask about my country’s transformation from poverty to prosperity. Without hesitation, I answer that education was the key.”

The Global Education First initiative, along with the Learning for All Ministerial event in Washington, D.C. last week with the UN, World Bank, the Global Partnership for Education, USAID and others, are building momentum around the global movement for education: to put every child in school, to improve the quality of learning, and to foster global citizenship. With roughly 1,000 days to the 2015 MDG deadline, the pressure is on to accelerate progress to expand access, improve equity and boost student achievement.

Education is the foundation of peace and prosperity. I can’t imagine a better world without a global commitment to providing better education for women and youth and I urge all of us to reinvigorate our efforts to accelerate progress in improving access, quality and student achievement worldwide.