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How Can CUNY and the UN Revolutionize Education for All? By Working Together


A Congolese boy walking to school near his refugee camp in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The authors, math professors in the City University of New York system, are proposing to work with the UN on achieving the goal of quality education for all. M. HOFER/ CREATIVE COMMONS

An important meeting on global education with a dozen education ministers from across the world was held at the United Nations headquarters last week. As the meeting unfolded, we were sitting in our office a few miles away, across the East River in Brooklyn, at the New York City College of Technology, part of the City University of New York, following along by webcast.

We were so close and yet so far away.

As math professors, we are by no means UN experts, and we do not necessarily need to be inside UN headquarters at Turtle Bay to make a difference in the world. At this point in our careers, however, with our unique educational experience we can declare that along with many other committed City University of New York (CUNY) educators, we should be participating at the heart of the dialogue to achieve Quality Education for All: Goal 4 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): “ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning.”

What do we propose? Bringing CUNY and the UN together to work on Goal 4.

We believe that today, more than ever, quality education extends beyond a basic human right — not only in the United States but also the entire globe. Quality education represents a national, regional and global investment helping to lift people out of poverty, combating disassociation and radicalization among marginalized groups, giving a voice and strength to women traditionally without such assets, reducing child marriage and equipping migrants and refugees with the tools they must acquire to move ahead.

Between the two of us, we have dedicated more than two decades to delivering the best education to those in our immediate reach, working mostly with underprepared, socioeconomically challenged, developmental-level New York City students. We are proof of what can be achieved given the opportunity and strong support from family and mentors. Like many of our students, we are first- and second-generation immigrants, we grew up using English as our second language and have overcome difficulties to attain our own quality education.

We share with our students the struggle to overcome cultural and gender stereotypes, conflict zones and the cycle of not earning college or graduate degrees. This quest to achieve is what spurs us to work tirelessly with our students.

Our work as math educators has involved redefining curriculum, reducing costs and increasing accessibility by digitizing courses, creating open-source resources and advocating heartfelt, personal work, especially with students who are most at risk. This work has led to the creation of a recent developmental pilot course that was highly received and welcomed by students, delivered in a workshop setting using iPads, a free textbook and an online homework platform.

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The emphasis was placed on teaching skills that extend beyond the classroom. Recently, inspired by a discussion at the International Peace Institute, a think tank across the street from the UN, which focused on education, SDGs and partnerships in digital education technologies, our attention has shifted to examining CUNY’s alignment and involvement in attaining UN goals.

This leads us to our proposal: we want to initiate an educational partnership between CUNY, the country’s largest public university, with approximately 275,000 students, and the UN that can propel progress toward SDG 4.

To jump-start this collaboration, we propose setting up a roundtable right here at City Tech and inviting administrators from CUNY and representatives from the SDG staff at the UN — such as Amina Mohammed, the deputy secretary-general — to begin discussing a plan of action. We call for a joint committee, including the SDG-Education 2030 steering committee, to explore the possibilities of developing pathways to take advantage of our mutual expertise.

We stand ready personally, backed by our resolve, to realize this partnership. We hope the UN is listening and will act.

Our vision is to unify digital innovators, educators and members of CUNY who hold the conviction that education is for all  to engage in such global endeavors. The common thread between our efforts at City Tech in digital education and some  current global efforts is evident, and we believe that we can be key players in achieving SDG 4.

We see a partnership where UN goals will help to shape CUNY curriculum, guide new innovations and inspire us at CUNY to scale up our efforts to bring quality education into every corner of the United States, ensuring education for everyone, here on our turf and beyond.

We strongly believe that CUNY is in the right position to make a major impact on this goal. CUNY is one of the leading influences on upward mobility among public universities in America, helping students climb the income ladder. It has already modeled several successful initiatives that have been adopted nationally, such as the Accelerated Study in Associates Programs (ASAP), which assists students in earning associate degrees within three years by providing a range of support, counseling and advice.

CUNY’s master plan for 2016-2020 focuses on diversity, adult learners, college readiness and remediation, affordability, online education and aligning curriculum with workforce needs and success in the labor market: all targets in step with SDG 4. Committing fully and practically to these lofty goals will also raise, as the master plan declares, CUNY’s “national and international profile as a source of urban expertise to benefit the public good, through public service initiatives and local relevant research projects.”

There is no better time to start a dialogue between CUNY and the UN. Instead of moving in parallel paths, working across the East River, we can help each other to achieve the universal goal of quality education by 2030. Indeed, we could achieve Goal 4 long before that deadline.

We are ready to get to work on changing the culture at CUNY to create the space for innovation and contribution toward SDG 4. We want to include the SDG agenda in the CUNY curriculum and civically engage our students, as they are the best advocates for a sustainable future, an important hallmark of quality education. We also wish to provide opportunities for the greater CUNY community to learn about and engage with the SDGs.

The education programs across the CUNY system hold the teachers of the future and can serve as an ideal incubator, starting with the Mathematics Education program on our own campus.

CUNY should never be on the sidelines. It is within our purview to virtually observe UN meetings (as we did recently), read the reports and follow the updates and developments of the SDGs. We belong among the good, dedicated people working at the UN to deliver this goal. We understand that the true richness and well-being of the world we share may be compromised, but we are personally invested in achieving quality education for all.

This is an opinion essay.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Marianna Bonanome is an associate professor of applied mathematics and computer science at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY. She is also a co-coordinator of City Tech’s Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) program and co-principal investigator of the Title V Opening Gateways to Completion Grant in collaboration with the Borough of Manhattan Community College, CUNY. She received a B.S. in mathematics from NYU Polytechnic (formerly Polytechnic University) and her master’s and doctoral degrees from the Graduate School and University Center of CUNY in mathematics.

Samar ElHitti is an associate professor of mathematics at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY. She received a master’s in science in statistics and probability from the Lebanese University in Lebanon, and both her master’s and doctoral degrees in mathematics from the University of Missouri in Columbia. She grew up in Beirut and has been living in the United States since 2002.

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How Can CUNY and the UN Revolutionize Education for All? By Working Together
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6 years ago

So very proud…

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