Get to the “Root” of the Problem to Get to the Best Solutions

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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 Toolkit, to 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.

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