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FEATURES/Philanthropy Awards 2012 | Dec 4, 2012 | 12297 views

Ashish Dhawan: Next Gen Leader in Philanthropy

A former private equity investor tries to bridge India’s gaping education divide
Ashish Dhawan: Next Gen Leader in Philanthropy
Image: Amit Verma
Ashish Dhawan, who set up the Central Square Foundation, wants to pump in money to set up an outcome-oriented education structure

Ashish Dhawan
Award:
Nextgen leader in philanthropy
Age: 43
Why He Won: For quitting a lucrative career in private equity to make India’s primary and secondary schooling system more equitable.  
His Trigger: Believes that India’s growth engine will come to a grinding halt in 2025 if we don’t provide our children with a good education.
His Mission: Wants to focus on systemic change as policy reform is the single-biggest lever for change.
His Action Plan: Focus includes affordable schools, teacher and school leader training, education technology and accountability/community engagement. 
His Next Move: Wants to do multiple experiments with education technology for schools. Is keen to prove that India needs a charter law to utilise the infrastructure of government schools in metros to build innovation schools that will act as beacons for the public system.

The world is divided into haves and have-nots, capitalists and Communists, city slickers and rural folks. The common thing that binds all these divisions is money. How about the division that’s based on the well-schooled and the drop-outs? The more educated have a significant earnings advantage over the less educated. This is the sort of advantage that someone like Ashish Dhawan—with a Yale, Harvard background—would have over a kid studying in a government school in Shahdara in northern Delhi.

 “Yeh bachche nahin seekh sakte hain. Inke maa baap ko dekho. Inke baas ka nahin hai [These kids can’t learn. Look at their parents. They don’t have the capability],” this is what the principal of a government school in Shahdara told Dhawan.  

You are allowed to think the principal is guilty of oversimplification. Surely, there are enough and more examples of kids from poor families making it big. But once you consider the probability of this happening on a regular basis, you will realise that the principal does have a point. It is very hard for kids from poor families to get the sort of environment that would allow them to focus on their studies and have a peer group that thinks about education. “When a poor kid does well, we celebrate it on the front page of newspapers; make a movie about it. While the failure of a kid from a well-off family to get into a good college is merely a hushed whisper,” says Dhawan.

Is it possible to make good education democratic? Nothing would level the playing field more than good quality education that isn’t dependent on the parent’s ability to pay. This is the vexing challenge that Ashish Dhawan is tackling. There is little in Dhawan’s background that tells us that he is the man for the job. He is a very wealthy man—in 2010, the fourth-highest taxpayer in the country—and comes from a profession that is in some ways the epitome of capitalism: Private equity. He is quite aware that he doesn’t know all the answers. He is clear about one thing though. “I think we blame the parents [of poor kids] too much. What we need is some of our best teachers teaching in the government schools,” says Dhawan.  

Right now, even some of the better private schools don’t have access to good teachers. This is not deterring Dhawan and he wants to move the needle on schools that will deliver good quality education at low prices. He also wants to train teachers better.  A clear example of Dhawan’s approach is seen in his funding of Gaurav Singh, founder, 3.2.1, which if things go to plan will be a charter school-like chain. In the US, charter schools have a little more freedom than traditional schools to decide their curriculum in exchange for setting clear outcomes that can be measured and monitored.
For instance, a charter school can state that 80 percent of its fourth standard children will be able to read and do mathematics of a certain level.

Is this approach a big deal? Yes. According to the 2010 ASER report done by Pratham, an NGO focussed on education, only 50 percent of Class V children can read standard II text. Approximately 62 percent of standard V students in government schools and about 50 percent in private schools cannot do division. If this doesn’t tell you about the dire situation of education, nothing else will.

Gaurav Singh’s goal is to remove the education inequity in India. Singh was a Teach for India (a non-profit that recruits college graduates and professionals to teach in low-income schools) fellow and finished the fellowship in 2011. “That’s when I met Ashish who was on the board of Teach for India. The more we talked the more we realised that we were thinking about primary education in a similar way,” says Singh. Both Dhawan and Singh were certain the traditional, input approach of measuring education was wrong. Here, the government specifies that the school should have X acres of land, Y number of labs, thinking that if inputs are good then the output should be good too. Just because someone uses a Babolat racquet, Nike shoes and drinks Gatorade, he does not become a Rafael Nadal. There is a lot of coaching and motivation, nothing a good teacher cannot inspire.  

Now, how do you function within the highly regulated sector and yet try and make a difference measured on the basis of outcomes? The answer was to understand the charter school system in the US. Singh won the Fisher Fellowship awarded by the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) and went to the US to learn how the charter schools worked in low income areas. Now, backed by Dhawan’s money from his education fund, Central Square Foundation, he plans to set up a series of such schools.

The first 3.2.1 school has come up in Mumbai’s Crawford Market area. This school is run on the PPP (public-private partnership) model where the premises are given by the municipal corporation and 3.2.1 brings in its own teachers and teaching techniques. The medium of instruction is English. This year, 85 children have been taken in the senior KG class for 2012-13. Every year, from now on, a new standard will be added for students. “Before Ashish started Central Square, 3.2.1 would have had a hard time raising finances. Central Square and Ashish have understood what we are trying to do and that is really helpful,” says Singh.

This article appeared in the Forbes India magazine issue of 07 December, 2012
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Comments (1)
Squadron Leader Pravin Bhatia Dec 20, 2013
Want support for an innovative teaching technique invented by Creative Educators founded by me. The technique has been demonstrated on 500,000 students in India with 99% success-rate, through written feed backs. The technique is being adopted as a module by Maharashtra State Council for Educational Research and Training. We have also received a letter of intent from Ministry of Minority Affairs for using it in minority schools.
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