Executive Access Interviews CEO of Central Square Foundation

Executive Access sat down with Ashish Dhawan, CEO of Central Square Foundation a nonprofit that targets education in India.

Why did you choose education as a sector? What specific areas within the space is CSF is focusing on? Do you have precedence to education based advocacy?

Dhawan: CSF only focuses on the K-12 category and not in the higher education space. We are not doing charity, but are trying to make a difference on the larger scale. There are 2 ways to do this and both are connected. One is to build evidence by funding through a dedicated corpus that can have a longer social impact and help nonprofits grow, but more importantly build evidence that can then be connected to policy. The second is on the policy making and advocacy side. Our belief is that by gathering the evidence that we build and also by coming up with new ideas and advocating them, we can add value. Again there are different ways of doing this; either we come up with new practices like introducing standard assessment techniques for schools which can be used throughout or we could focus on something that already exists and do it better. For example, we have 14,000 teacher training institutes and we have come up with a rating framework to evaluate these institutes. We are currently running a pilot program with the ministry on it. The third level could be to introduce some micro changes in the policy.

Everything that we do has to have some scalability and replicability within the system. If it’s a school, it has to be at the same cost as a government school so that when we go to the government and ask them to replicate this model; they cannot raise the cost issue. Our venture capital side looks at scalability and replicability.

In the Western world, there is a lot of work happening on education based advocacy. For example, at the Gates foundation, they spend a lot of money and time in advocacy. They sponsored a very critical piece of research for teacher effectiveness which focused on learning outcomes, teacher observation, managing student teacher ratio etc., and are now advocating these changes across different states. They are also advocating changes in the evaluating systems and change in the pay systems based on their research. There are several other models globally. In India, we have a Centre for Science and Environment approach, which is looked at as a more activist approach. They have very good reports to advocate for change. For example, if we look at Delhi, small industries have now moved out and the pollution levels have also decreased in the last 15 years, and CSE deserves a lot of credit for making these issues mainstream and educating people and policy makers alike. There have been a lot of instances such as these in India and we have had people like Vinod Raina advocating for Right to education for 10 years before it was finally passed, RTI etc. and there have been a number of people who have managed to make an impact based on research and through constantly advocating their points to politicians.

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