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Stemming the Droput Crisis: A Q&A With AT&T's Beth Adcock Shiroishi

November 20, 2012

Beth_shiroishi_headshotBeth Adcock Shiroishi, vice president for sustainability and philanthropy at AT&T and president of the AT&T Foundation, leads AT&T Aspire, one of the nation's largest corporate commitments focused on helping more students graduate from high school ready for college and careers. The telecommunications giant launched the $100 million initiative in 2008 and expanded it earlier this year with an additional commitment of $250 million over five years, bringing its total investment in the program to $350 million.

After a rigorous and competitive process, AT&T recently selected forty-seven schools and nonprofits from among thousands nationwide to share in nearly $10 million in funding through the Aspire Local Impact request for proposal. Applicants were evaluated based on their alignment with evidence-based approaches, their accomplishments in serving students at risk of dropping out of high school, and their ability to use data to demonstrate the effectiveness of their work.

PND spoke with Shiroishi earlier this month about the initiative.

Philanthropy News Digest: Give us a sense of the scope of the dropout crisis in America?

Beth Adcock Shiroishi: One in four students -- more than one million each year -- fails to graduate with their class. And the picture is even bleaker for minority students, with the graduation rate among Hispanic, African-American, and Native-American students nearly 25 percent lower than the rate for their white and Asian American peers. Obviously, this has huge implications for our future job force, the economy as a whole, and our nation's global competiveness. But while it's a serious and urgent problem, there are signs of progress. Nationally, high school graduation rates are increasing, and we've seen huge gains in certain states and with certain programs that give us hope.

PND: AT&T launched the Aspire program in 2008. What were the goals of the program when it was launched, and have they been met?

BAS: Our original goal was to commit $100 million to fund proven programs aimed at raising the graduation rate, create one hundred thousand job shadow opportunities for students, and support one hundred community dropout summits. Thanks to the tireless work of our employees and nonprofit allies, we achieved these goals. At the same time, we impacted more than one million students in all fifty states and worked with more than one thousand community and national organizations that, like us, understand how important it is to improve graduation rates.

PND: What was behind your decision to focus much of the local impact RFP on data-driven approaches?

BAS: As a company, we understand the power of data to help make good decisions, illuminate impact, and identify and spread best practices. So it was only natural for us to want to use that same powerful tool in our charitable work, especially when the issue at hand is so important to improving lives, positioning America to be more globally competitive, and our success as a company. As you mentioned, with our recent RFP we decided to seek out programs that effectively use data in a way that enables an understanding of how "on track to graduate" students in a funded program are performing and allows us to compare them to a control group of students not in the program. Hopefully, this will help us understand more about what programs work best in certain situations and give us the ability to share learnings and best practices with others working in this space.

PND: Do you consider feedback from parents and teachers and other types of anecdotal information in your metrics?

BAS: Absolutely. As important and powerful a tool as metrics can be, in the education space metrics must be contextualized and brought to life by an understanding of the experiences of the people involved. Said another way, the metrics must be viewed together with the anecdotes to truly understand what works and what impact is being achieved.

PND: What are some of the other challenges involved in measuring student achievement?

BAS: As anyone working in education knows, this is a challenging field with lots of highly emotional issues embedded in it. So, I'll just speak to some of the challenges we as a funder of programs face. And the first one is a good problem to have! Because there are so many varied approaches to raising graduation rates, it's hard to create an assessment framework in a way that allows for an apples-to-apples comparison. Variations that create measurement obstacles include the fact that states have different requirements for student progression to the next grade level and different timeframes in which they release data. These and other issues eventually led us to realize that we needed an expert to help us. So, we've engaged a third-party evaluator to help us on this journey toward more understanding and more effective use of data.

PND: Along with its emphasis on data-driven approaches, the RFP focused on local, community-driven efforts. How are the two connected?

BAS: AT&T and the AT&T Foundation have always focused on communities where our employees live and work. Local organizations are on the frontlines of education every day, and they know better than we do what approaches work best for students in their communities. Together with our increased focus on data collection and analysis, we hope to work with these local organizations to better track the students served and shine a light on the supports and interventions that are most effective.

PND: What would be the likely consequences of not successfully addressing the dropout crisis in America?

BAS: Dropouts from the class of 2010 alone will cost the country more than $337 billion in lost wages over the course of their lifetimes. But for our company, this is about our future workforce and our future customer base. Like all American employers, we need a diverse educated workforce to power our company into the future. And we need an economy that can avail itself of the technology that will keep us a leader in innovation. We know we can make a difference by supporting programs that are having a real impact. A recent study found that every dollar invested in the model pioneered by dropout prevention organization Communities in Schools increased graduation rates and produced an average of $11.60 in economic benefit for the community. We want to support and help scale more programs like that. That's why we have broadened and deepened our commitment to AT&T Aspire with an additional $250 million investment. We know the time is now; we can't wait any longer to address the problem.

-- Emily Robbins

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