Tuesday, February 24, 2015


[The Americans are internationally notorious for their race problem. As a child, I had read the story of Booker Tallaferro Washington. When I had gone to the US in the 1990s, I passed a black beggar sitting on the footpath. I stopped to give something, but found I did not have money. So I told him I was sorry. He said that was all right; it was nice of me to talk to him. I often tried to talk to blacks, but it was difficult; they were not used to chatting to strangers. In and around Stanford, there were few blacks, but I continued to be interested in them. This column, published in Business Standard of 7 February 2000, was the result. I continue to think that our approach to the Dalits and Muslims is unimaginative and ineffective, and that we could learn from the US.]

Making a difference

When Martin Luther King Junior marched against race discrimination in the 1960s, what engaged him were basic things like the right to vote, the right to sit on the same seat in a bus, or a right to attend a school. Those rights were won quite quickly, although he paid for them with his life. By the 1970s young Bill Clinton was canvassing black votes when he ran for Governor of Arkansas, white and black seats in buses were gone, and the US Supreme Court had forced schools to admit black children. In the 1980s, the proportion of black students who graduated from high school rose from 51 to 66 per cent; the proportion of black students aged 25 and over who held college degrees rose from 8 to 11 per cent.
But although more blacks may be passing examinations, their performance in the examinations continues to be miserable. In 1995, 104,000 black students took the Scholastic Aptitude Test. It involves a verbal test; only 465 scored 650 or more on the verbal test. One sees this in daily life here; few young blacks are articulate, let alone fluent. The number of white students who took the test was 674,000; 36,700 scored 650 or more. In the maths test, the number of students who got more than 650 was 1437 amongst blacks and 51,306 amongst whites. It is no longer a matter of discrimination; it is a matter of poor performance, right from the start. Many of the teachers of black children are black. The US has a qualification for high-quality teachers called National Board Certificate; a teacher who gets it can teach anywhere in the United States. The pass rate for the certificate is 48 per cent; for black teachers, it is 3 per cent. At last count, only 253 of the 14,000 school superintendents were black.
We have the same problem with the scheduled castes in India, and we solve it by lowering the passing standards for them. They thus go through their entire lives poorly prepared. One only has to hear what high-caste people say about their scheduled caste colleagues; and not all of it is based on prejudice.
It is not a problem that the privileged will solve for the less privileged; the less privileged have to strive themselves. So in 1974, a few black school superintendents started the National Alliance of Black School Superintendents. Soon it became a teachers’ organization. The way it is trying to tackle the problem of black underperformance is of interest to us in India. Charles D Moody Sr, the first black superintendent of schools, says, “People approached the whole era of desegregation as just a matter of mixing bodies. They didn’t look at the notion of access to all the resources, all of the opportunities that were available in schools. What you ended up having in a lot of schools was segregation within schools – almost like two schools in one… You can’t put all the responsibility for making progress on the shoulders of kids. Who are the people who are willing to be mentors to these children? Regardless of how competent you are, of how smart you are, if you don’t have a mentor or a sponsor, your career ability is limited.”
NABSE identifies the best schools as demonstration schools, and puts them and their practices up for emulation. It promotes the cause, for instance, of Beverly Hall, superintendent of schools in Newark. Battling politicians, officials and parents, she set up all-day kindergartens so that teachers could teach without worrying about their children, cleaned up school buildings, trained teachers to use computers and audiovisual aids in their teaching, fired 600 administrators and a number of school principals, and closed a middle school. She raised the proportion of students passing New Jersey’s High School Proficiency Test from a quarter to over a half. She was battling to close down a high school when Atlanta offered her superintendentship; there she has attracted funds from Ford Foundation and Lucent Technologies for experiments in education.
Another model put forward is Fanny Gibson, a school principal in Chicago. When she took over ten years ago, 1 per cent of the school’s students passed a state reading test; last year, 36 per cent did. She aligned the teaching with the state standards, reinforced it by bringing in a lot of parent volunteers and teacher assistants, and exposed children to something beyond the curriculum, such as chess and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
What is striking is the kind of interaction that NABSE seeks with the outside world. We are familiar with trade unions in India – inbred, secretive organizations that come into the limelight only when they organize strikes. NABSE, of course, asks people to give money. But that apart, it asks people to invite a child or children to spend a day with them at work, to volunteer to run an after-school or summer school programme, to clean, paint and help maintain a school, or to adopt a parent – help her to supervise children. It asks companies to provide short-term staff, employ students of NABSE schools as summer interns, participate in work-study programmes for children, and sponsor science fairs, speaking and writing contests.

NABSE’s approach and attitude seem to me to be far better designed to equip children from a disadvantaged community for life than those that we in India have adopted. We proceed on the assumption that belonging to a scheduled caste by itself constitutes a historical injustice, and that the way of setting it right is by giving its members functions beyond their ability. NABSE’s approach is to tackle the causes of disability. No one believes today that the causes are inherent; so we must all believe that the causes lie in the environment. If so, it must be possible to improve the performance of the disadvantaged by changing the environment; and the school forms the larger part of a child’s environment. Poor students need better schooling than good ones, not worse.