It is a Tuesday afternoon and a School Leadership Team meets after the first grading period to review data across multiple domains and you serve as the team lead. Team members notice data related to high levels of chronic absenteeism across all grade levels, high rates of failure in math for lower grades, and disproportionate rates of referrals and suspensions for male students most often noted for behavior “interfering with learning in the classroom” and “refusal to comply”. Team members immediately begin to discuss their thoughts about student absences stating that students are showing a decline in motivation toward school in recent years. Several members also discuss how parents may need additional resources in order to provide adequate support at home for male students which would reinforce positive classroom behavior. A few staff also share that they believe large groups of students are failing math due to decreased motivation toward work completion, and lack of skill reinforcement in earlier grades. How would you respond? How would you guide this group to consider a variety of perspectives? What steps would you take to encourage focused reflection and structured dialogue that leads to effective change? If you have served on a division or school level team, this experience is likely familiar to you. These questions are what have led many educators to consider the critical role of root cause analysis within data informed decision making.
What is root cause analysis?
Root cause analysis (RCA) is not a new idea, as it has been used in the business arena for many years, and more recently in the field of education. A root cause analysis is a systematic and structured process that leads groups to look beyond symptoms to understand the deepest underlying cause or causes of a problem (Osher et al., 2015). Root cause analysis assumes that, if you can identify and eliminate root causes, then you can eliminate the problem. The goal is to avoid making quick recommendations that might be incomplete or inadequate.
The general steps within a root cause analysis include problem identification, problem analysis, intervention design and evaluation. RCA, however, extends the problem-solving process by identifying variables that contribute to a hypothesis that is developed during problem analysis, and includes diverse stakeholder groups as partners throughout the problem-solving process (Sandomierski et al., 2022). The process of root cause analysis is about prevention with a focus on systems and outcomes, and is not about placing blame or punishing people (VADBHDS, 2019). There is no one way to conduct a root cause analysis, however, it can be composed of different tools, processes, protocols and perspectives that support a systematic examination of contributing causes (US Dept. of Education, 2020).
Why root cause analysis?
In spite of repeated efforts to disrupt pervasive patterns of disparities, discipline and academic achievement gaps have continued to widen with relatively little research demonstrating how educators can effectively correct it, especially while considering schools’ unique contexts and populations (Sandomierski et al., 2022). Although resources exist, districts, schools, and communities need support so that they can address disparities in a strategic and sustainable manner (Osher et al., 2015). Root cause analysis has emerged as one strategy to address this need.
Root cause analysis provides a structure through which a division level or school-based team can identify alterable factors that support a meaningful change in school practices (Fenning & Jenkins, 2018). This process produces insights into the system as a whole, prompts participants to look at problems from a stakeholder perspective and assists teams to develop actionable strategies that are informed by the possible drivers of disparities. RCA ensures that the initial problem is narrow and concrete enough to improve and enhances the group’s ability to develop targeted and measurable outcomes (Kaiser-Edwards, 2022).
How do teams engage in root cause analysis?
It is important to keep in mind that there is no single way to conduct a root cause analysis. The US Office of Elementary and Secondary Education (2020) suggests several protocols when engaging in root cause analysis, two of which are “The 5 Whys” and “The Fishbone”. In addition, teams must remember that, as schools are complex systems, the identification of just one root cause may not be possible or even desirable (Osher et al., 2015). Teams should be aware that the root cause analysis process can also take more time than what may be expected due to the intentional reflection involved and the specific actions taken to partner with stakeholders in the process.
A key component of RCA is the examination of qualitative data outside of what may already exist (e.g., facilitating student and family focus groups). Meaningful discussion with students and families impacted by discipline disparities, or other data such as academic achievement and attendance, is critical within the RCA process. It aids in establishing a context for the data that is collected and highlights concrete actions that can be taken that might otherwise have been overlooked. This partnership may require meeting schedules that accommodate diverse family participation. Is it also crucial to include diverse members of a community who have a stake in supporting student success, such as local health and mental health professionals, child welfare advocates, and members of courts and juvenile justice agencies (Osher et al., 2015). Participation of diverse stakeholder groups provides educators with the opportunity to obtain unique insights into various causes and can ultimately lead to a broader acceptance of innovative strategies that match the context and cultures of individuals served by schools (Sandomierski et al., 2022).
What are some examples of root causes?
Below are examples of root causes identified by division or school level teams:
- impact of educators’ and administrator stress
- lack of support for educator understanding of student behavior
- educators’ need for skill building to prevent and address troubling behaviors that evoke punitive responses
- lack of staff skills in using positive approaches and de-escalation techniques
- lack of access to challenging curricula and engaging extracurricular opportunities
- lack of active invitation to opportunities in the school setting
- climate, conditions for learning, and learning environment issues
- implementation capacity issues
- gaps in intervention fidelity
(Osher et al., 2015)
What next steps can our team take?
Before your team gets started, consider how planning and thoughtful facilitation can support teams to thoroughly and non-defensively examine how policies and practices are implemented and experienced by students, families and staff. Think proactively about how shared agreements might support teams to engage in honest, safe, and inclusive discussions — conversations that will emphasize growth, not guilt (Osher et al., 2015). Discussions about various data points can touch on sensitive issues as well as attitudes, beliefs and lived experiences related to behavior or achievement. For meaningful and sustained change to occur, these discussions need to occur and can be supported when everyone feels they can share their thoughts in a safe and supportive environment (Osher et al., 2015).
Before engaging in root cause analysis, assess whether your team is representative of diverse district stakeholders, particularly those impacted by the data (both internal and external), and consider who can support your team through this process.
Remember! Contact your VTSS Systems Coach or TTAC Specialists for additional support if needed.
Osher, D., Fisher, D., Amos, L., Katz, J., Dwyer, K., Duffey, T., & Colombi, G. D. (2015). Addressing the Root Causes of Disparities in School Discipline: An Educator’s Action Planning Guide. National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED580917.pdf
Fenning, & Jenkins, K. (2018). Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Exclusionary School Discipline: Implications for Administrators Leading Discipline Reform Efforts. NASSP Bulletin, 102(4), 291–302.
Sandomierski, T., Martinez, S., Webster, R., Winneker, A., & Minch, D. (2022). From “quick fix” to lasting commitment: Using root cause analysis to address disproportionate discipline outcomes. Preventing School Failure: Alternative Education for Children and Youth, 66(1), 1-13.
US Department of Education. (2020, September 15). Approaches to root cause analysis. Office of Elementary and Secondary Education. Retrieved April 11, 2023, from https://oese.ed.gov/resources/oese-technical-assistance-centers/state-support-network/resources/approaches-root-cause-analysis
VA Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services. (2019) “Root Cause Analysis: The Basics.”
Kaiser-Edwards, A. (2022). “Networked Improvement Communities: Identifying Root Causes”, VA Office of School Quality.