By Aaron Anthony
We want results and we want them now. We want reform and we want it now. We want things to get better now; not later. But if we don’t “go slow to go fast,” we’re not likely to get the real changes we’re after, and this is especially true in education. A root cause analysis is a key tool in continuous improvement that can help chart a path forward when addressing a problem of practice. With foundations in engineering and manufacturing, root cause analyses are becoming increasingly popular in education.
What is a root cause analysis and where did it come from?
A root cause analysis is like a toddler going through a “Why?” phase. The phase where every response to a question gets another “why?” until reaching either the inevitable (for me, at least) “I don’t know – it just is!”
Except in this instance the “Why? Why? Why?” is asked by a team interested in improving a specific outcome. The idea is to carefully look at a whole system to get to the root causes of a problem rather than treating a host of symptoms.
For example, I have a problem in my house where if I’m running the dryer at night, especially in the winter, it’s likely to cause the main circuit breaker to go off. Then I’ll head to the basement with a flashlight and switch the main breaker on and off until the lights come back on. One solution might be to stop using the dryer. I could just go to a laundromat or air dry my clothes. Voila! Problem solved – the circuit breaker stops switching off. But I’ve only responded to symptoms of the problem. I haven’t found a root cause.
A root cause analysis would ask: Why does my home’s main circuit breaker goes off when I use the dryer? Because there’s an overload in current. Why’s there an overload in current? Because I’m using too much energy for the breaker panel to handle. Why does it happen in the winter and at night? Because in the winter, I’m more likely to be using space heaters in my kids’ rooms and space heaters use lots of energy – more than my 100-amp circuit breaker panel can handle. If I wanted to fix the root cause of the problem, I’d upgrade to a higher capacity panel.
Root cause analyses first cropped up in engineering and manufacturing as an approach to quality management. In these instances, the problems are generally mechanical or procedural in nature – much like my clothes dryer problem. Root cause analyses soon spread to other fields and are increasingly popular in education.
Root cause analysis in education is different.
Kids aren’t mechanical widgets, and problems in education can rarely be traced back to a single adverse event. For example, a “problem” of low student achievement could typically be caused by hundreds of years of inadequate educational opportunities for minoritized students. Waves of education reforms set out to improve teaching and learning and are most common in schools deemed to be “struggling” by some measure or another. However, inequitable structures have benefited some groups while others – people of color and people living in poverty, in particular – have been stifled (Milner, 2013). Without due attention to the contexts in which reforms are implemented, a rush to intervene can end up with a mismatch between problems and solutions, which end in failed reforms, which deepen educational opportunity gaps for minoritized students.
With this cycle in mind, a team of colleagues and I spent some time thinking about our shared root cause analysis work in a large, urban southern school district with high populations of Latina/o, Black, and Emergent Multilingual students to build a framework for centering equity in a root cause analysis. An equity-focused root cause analysis in education takes on a critical perspective to better understand how historical inequities have shaped a problem and led to inequitable outcomes.
Here, I distill some essential findings from that work which inform an upcoming paper. We first identified three common features of any effective root cause analysis. We then propose three more features of equity-focused root cause analysis in education.
What do effective root cause analyses have in common?
Research points to a few traits that effective root cause analyses (in any setting) have in common. They
1. Incorporate multiple points of view and sets of knowledge.
Effective root cause analyses bring in different kinds of people with different kinds of expertise from inside and outside an organization to work together to improve a specific problem.
2. Gather detailed sets of data.
Effective root cause analyses gather, inspect, and interpret lots of different kinds of information related to the outcome that they want to change.
3. Challenge assumptions.
Effective root cause analyses have teams that challenge assumptions and biases about what the factors are that are contributing to the thing they want to change.
These are some things that all effective root cause analyses have in common, including root cause analyses in education. However, in all aspects of education, equity should be a top priority, so it’s not enough to stop with these three traits.
What does an equity-focused root cause analysis look like?
In addition, an equity-focused RCA should
1. Address implicit biases.
Implicit biases are an unintentional form of bias that operate deep in our psyche – so far that we can’t even readily be aware that they exist. Yet they have a powerful influence over our decisions and behavior (Staats, 2016). A recent study provides a good example of how implicit biases might show up in the classroom. Researchers found that teachers felt increased anxiety when teaching Black students, which had a negative effect on their quality of instruction, which negatively affected Black students’ learning. The same relationship didn’t hold for White students (Jacoby-Snghor, Sinclair, & Shelton, 2016). Implicit biases surface in educators’ explanations for certain negative outcomes and might sound like, “These students don’t take school seriously.” Judgmental viewpoints about the abilities of certain groups like this are known as deficit perspectives.
Educators need opportunities for guided reflection on their backgrounds and experiences to redress the implicit biases they may unknowingly hold about certain groups of students.
2. Embrace “We, not They” (focus on what YOU can change).
A powerful shift happens when we frame our thinking in terms of what we as educators can do to face challenges with student learning instead of what they do. The “they” here could be any of several entities: students, their families, society at large, or local governments, just to name a few. Research shows a direct link between framing problems of learning as addressable within a school and productive strategies for learning (Horn, 2007; Jackson et al., 2017; Skrla et al, 2004). As with implicit biases, framing problems in terms of “they” not “we” can encourage a deficit perspective, and decreased likelihood of finding solutions within a school to improve student learning. An equity-focused root cause analysis steers attention to what teachers can do to support learning.
3. Recognize and use equitable learning opportunities.
A traditional one-size-fits-all approach to learning doesn’t acknowledge or respect the unique experiences of different learners. An equity-centered root cause analysis recognizes this and pushes educators to look for strategies to support specific minoritized student groups. For example, an educator looking for more equitable learning opportunities may learn from their students that the students don’t see or hear themselves in selected texts. In response, schools can work with students to increase the cultural relevance of texts.
Those are some key elements of what an equity-focused root cause analysis in education should include. In the end, pressures for fast changes in education will remain. And an equity-focused root cause analysis takes time and energy, which are always in short supply. But if it leads to a more sustainable and equitable approach to improving learning opportunities, it’s worth it.
Bergen, N., & LaBonte, R. (2020). “Everything is perfect, and we have no problems”: Detecting and limiting social desirability bias in qualitative research.
Horn I. S. (February 2007). Fast kids, slow kids, lazy kids: Framing the mismatch problem in math teachers’ conversations. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 16(1), 37-79. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/234645388_Fast_Kids_Slow_Kids_Lazy_Kids_Framing_the_Mismatch_Problem_in_Mathematics_Teachers’_Conversations
Jackson R., Tesfay F. H., Gebrehiwot T. G., Godefay H. (2017). Factors that hinder or enable maternal health strategies to reduce delays in rural and pastoralist areas in Ethiopia. Tropical Medicine & International Health, 22(2), 148–160. https://doi.org/10.1111/tmi.12818
Jacoby-Senghor, D. S., Sinclair, S., & Shelton, J. N. (2016). A lesson in bias: The relationship between implicit racial bias and performance in pedagogical contexts. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 63, 50–55. https://www.sciencedirect.com/journal/journal-of-experimental-social-psychology/vol/63/suppl/C
Milner, H. R. (2013). Analyzing poverty, learning, and teaching through a critical race theory lens. Review of Research in Education, 37(1), 1–53. https://doi.org/10.3102/0091732X12459720
Skrla, L. E., McKenzie, K. B., & Scheurich, J. J. (2009) Using equity audits to create equitable and excellent schools. [Online publication: June 19, 2012] Dallas, TX: Corwin Press.
Skrla, L. E., Scheurich, J. L., Garcia, J., & Nolly, G. (2004). Equity audits: A practical leadership tool for developing equitable and excellent schools. Educational Administration Quarterly, 40(1), 133–161.
Staats, C. (Winter 2015-2016). Understanding implicit bias: What educators should know. American Educator, 39(4), American Federation of Teachers. https://www.aft.org/ae/winter2015-2016/staats