Pakistan faces a multitude of serious challenges, many of them connected to the lack of a viable education system for its poor masses. Widespread illiteracy and dismal pedagogical standards are overwhelming problems.

Well-meaning but largely symbolic actions – such as a recent constitutional amendment which mandates free primary and secondary education, along with education reform task forces and new education policies – have produced no real change. Millions of school age children are unable to access affordable schooling. This provides fertile ground for religious extremism and the radicalization of the youth.

A recent report by the International Crisis Group, ‘Education Reform in Pakistan’, gives a comprehensive and detailed picture of this dire situation. The report points to gender disparities, differences in access to education between urban and rural areas, and the fact that nine million Pakistani children are not in school. Yet total government spending on education is stuck at 2 per cent of GDP, the lowest in South Asia. The report concludes that Pakistan is far from achieving the Millennium Development Goal of providing universal primary education by 2015.

For its part, The Citizens Foundation (TCF) has tried to address the problem. TCF has established 1,000 schools in urban slums and rural areas that provide quality education to 145,000 girls and boys from low-income families. We have developed an effective school management model, and exposed as a myth the belief that poor, uneducated parents do not want education for their children and will not send their girls to school. To the contrary, our system boasts near parity between the genders. All our 7,700 teachers are professionally trained women, a fact that further encourages the enrollment of girls.

Pakistan needs education reform at multiple levels — curriculum changes, better management, and an end to corruption and tolerance of teacher absenteeism, among myriad other problems. But there is low-hanging fruit that can be harvested first. We can achieve a lot through public-private partnerships (school adoption programs, for example), sharing simple ideas to improve the quality of education, and innovations in curriculum delivery and teacher training through technology.

It’s going to take a little help from our friends in the developed world, but we’re not asking for handouts. We ask for your support to overcome this menace of illiteracy and poverty so that our children can grow up as good citizens in a decent society free of violence and intolerance, and be ready to compete on the world market for the best jobs.

A major milestone was reached this year when TCF opened its thousandth school. On October 8, in partnership with Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC, we are co-hosting a conference on Pakistan’s broken education system, where we will bring together some of the best minds in education.  A second conference is being planned for February 2015 in partnership with University of California, Berkeley’s Pakistan Initiative. These are major steps in the process of reform. Please let us know how you would like to help.