Get to the “Root” of the Problem to Get to the Best Solutions
In the world of education, our ultimate goal is to have all students succeed. When there are barriers to student success, we don’t always know how or even where to begin fixing problems. This is especially true when addressing complex issues, such as significant disproportionality, for which a simple data review may not tell the whole story or create a complete picture of the problem. This is where root cause analysis comes in.
What exactly is root cause analysis? It is simply this: a problem-solving method for uncovering the root or “core” causes of a problem in order to identify appropriate solutions. Root cause analysis prompts us to think deeply about and reflect on current processes and practices in our existing educational landscape, and it helps provide a rationale for selecting certain strategies that can resolve or prevent the problem from recurring.
How can you get started with root cause analysis? What do you need to know as you begin this work? We have created some resources, such as the Determining Root Cause guidance document, which is part of the IDC Data Meeting Toolkit, and IDC’s Success Gaps Toolkitto help you with determining your process for moving forward.
As you prepare to conduct root cause analysis, set yourself up for success by
- Using a team approach that includes a diverse stakeholder group with multiple perspectives, expertise, and at least one person with authority to make change
- Providing the team with an overview of the root cause analysis process before you begin
- Clearly defining the issue to address and preparing data before the meeting for informed decisionmaking
- Reviewing the data and documenting
- Observations (i.e., initial thoughts or reactions to the data)
- Interpretations (i.e., what the data mean, whether the data confirm or disprove current thoughts or assumptions, and identifying what additional data you need)
- Implications (i.e., potential root causes of the problem, including less obvious or more hidden causes)
- Considering potential root causes associated with the student demographics, curriculum, instruction, system processes, and external factors (Preuss)
- Documenting decisions, next steps, action plans, and timelines for each action step to monitor the status of follow-up activities
If you are interested in learning more about root cause analysis, please reach out to your IDC State Liaison to access technical assistance and other support.
–Joanna Bivins and Rachel Wilkinson
Preuss, P. G. (2015). School Leader's Guide to Root Cause Analysis. Routledge, NY.
Format: ToolkitsData Meeting Toolkit
The Data Meeting Toolkit is a suite of tools that groups can use to guide conversation around data and support data-based decisionmaking. The toolkit provides resources to support success before, during, and after data meetings.
Format: ToolkitsSuccess Gaps Toolkit: Addressing Equity, Inclusion, and Opportunity
The Success Gaps Toolkit presents a process for using data and the Success Gap Rubric to identify root causes of gaps between groups of children in districts or schools. These success gaps occur when the education system is not meeting the needs of all groups of children and outcomes for some groups are different than outcomes for most groups. The toolkit, with its process and materials, provides a manageable and defined way for districts or schools to identify success gaps that are present and their root causes and then make a plan for addressing the gaps. The success gaps may be the graduation rate of students who are English learners compared to the rate of all other children, the out-of-school suspension rate of children who are Black compared to the rate of all other children, the identification of children who are Hispanic as children with specific learning disabilities compared to the identification of all other children, and other gaps.