Determine Actionable Root Cause(s)

After exploring the data and developing a detailed success gap statement, the team is ready to begin identifying actionable root causes.

Key Terms
  • The root cause is the fundamental reason that the success gap is occurring.
  • An actionable root cause is one that the district or school can act on and change the results.

Digging deeply enough to find the root causes is important to be confident that the action your team will eventually select to address the success gap(s) will result in improved outcomes. It is critical to continue your analysis until you reach “the deepest underlying cause or causes of symptoms within a process that, if dissolved, would result in elimination, or substantial reduction, of the symptom” (Preuss 2003).

Preuss, P.G. (2003). School Leader’s Guide to Root Cause Analysis: Using Data to Dissolve Problems. Larchmont, NY: Eye on Education.

Why Is Identifying the Actionable Root Cause(s) Important?

Keep in mind that some root causes are actionable, and others are not. For example, your team may find that poverty as well as culturally inappropriate behavioral interventions have both contributed to your success gap. While a district or school team cannot directly intervene on a child’s economic status, it can identify and implement more appropriate behavioral interventions to support students. Thus, one root cause is actionable, and one is present and overlying but not actionable by the district or school. Still, a district or school team may decide to act on a symptom of poverty, such as providing nutritious food to eat in school or providing internet access in a community, even though the root of the problem is out of reach.

Some interventions are more easily identified and implemented and may appear to address the problem because they address the problem’s symptoms. Unfortunately, these interventions don’t resolve underlying issues.

Determine Actionable Root Causes

To solve the problem, you have to find the right problem. Listen as IDC’s TA specialists discuss how the Success Gaps Toolkit supports teams to address the identified success gap(s) by ensuring that the focus stays on what the team discovered during root cause analysis.

An Example

If a school has a large number of children who are not meeting proficiency targets in mathematics, school staff could choose to provide additional minutes of mathematics instruction to those children.

While this approach may improve outcomes in the short term, each year, the school may find it has to continue providing this additional instruction for a large group of its children. This issue may persist because the school has treated a symptom of the problem rather than the root cause. A closer inspection of the school’s data over time could reveal that the core instructional approach is not a good fit for the children who are English learners.

When the school intervenes by implementing instructional methods that meet the needs of this group of children, as well as other children, it will find that far fewer children need supplemental support going forward.

How Can You Identify Actionable Root Cause(s)?

The Success Gaps Rubric, an essential component of the Success Gaps Toolkit, is designed as one data source to guide your team in identifying the root causes of the success gap.

The rubric is based on reviewed research that identifies the seven essential elements of successful instruction for all children:

  1. Data-Based Decisionmaking
  2. Cultural Responsiveness
  3. Core Instructional Program
  4. Ongoing Assessment—Universal Screening and Progress Monitoring
  5. Evidence-Based Instructional and Behavioral Interventions and Supports
  6. District/School Leadership That Facilitates Improvement
  7. Parent/Family Engagement Throughout the Education Process and System

Completing the steps outlined in the rubric will explicitly help your team to consider all seven elements in your analysis by reflecting on how current systems and practices in your district or school affect educational opportunities for the group of children you are discussing.

During the process of completing the rubric, you will consider the following rubric elements:

  • Data-Based Decisionmaking
  • Cultural Responsiveness
  • Core Instructional Program
  • Assessment—Universal Screening and Progress Monitoring
  • Interventions and Supports

Note that the elements of leadership and family engagement are not individual components of the rubric but are interwoven throughout the success gaps process, as they are integral to student achievement. Because leadership directly affects the district’s and school’s culture and climate, leadership is promoted in the process by encouraging leaders to be role models in the process and forerunners of equitable practices. Additionally, family engagement is incorporated into the process through team membership and embedded in each rubric section. Engaging families and the community in all school activities and decisions, as well as their child’s education, creates a welcoming and equitable educational environment.

What Are the Steps to Complete the Success Gaps Rubric?

The goal of completing the rubric is to collect information about your district’s or school’s current status from many perspectives. The process is iterative and takes time. Most teams will need multiple team meetings to complete their evidence collection and consensus-building.

You will use each member’s feedback, data they provide, and other available data to create a collection of evidence about each element in the rubric. You will use this data-based evidence to guide your discussion, build consensus, and produce a rating for each indicator in the rubric.

Keep in Mind

It is important to understand completing the rubric is an iterative process and will take multiple team meetings to complete.

A description of the steps for completing the rubric follows.

1. Complete the rubric individually

To make the most of your team’s time together, team members first should review and complete the rubric individually. Individual reflection will allow each team member to consider each indicator’s status and any evidence (including data) he or she can contribute to support the team’s conversation about the indicator’s rating. Encourage each team member to respond honestly based on what he or she knows about the experience of the group of children or students who are experiencing success gaps in your district or school. Keep in mind that evidence of relevant strengths is welcome—if your district or school is doing an excellent job in some dimensions, say it! Your team will build on these strengths later as they identify and explore ways to address factors contributing to success gaps. If individual team members have questions about the system’s current status, they should note their questions and raise them during the team discussion.

2. Collect evidence

Consider the method by which you have the team process this information. If you have a large group, think about having members first discuss their ratings and thoughts in a smaller group (e.g., pairs, triads) before discussing as a larger group. You also might ask the small group to add its thoughts to a shared document or chart that a nominated team member can present to the larger group. This processing method will promote greater cohesiveness and increase participation from group members who are more hesitant to share their thoughts and opinions in front of the whole group.

3. Build consensus

Once all team members have collected and discussed all the data, you can poll the team to see how most team members rate the district or school on the indicator. Ask team members to indicate which rating they believe best represents the district’s or school’s current state with a show of hands (or chat box comment). If the team agrees on the rating, and you have collected the evidence the team members brought with them, you are ready to move to the next indicator.

If the team’s ratings differ, invite team members to share their rationale for a particular rating. A common mistake is to overvalue the voices of authority and academic expertise and undervalue the voices of lived experience that the community members representing those who are experiencing success gaps provide. No one understands the educational experiences that are causing the success gap better than the children experiencing them and their families. Remember, too, that data can appear objective but are inevitably interpreted through the lenses and implicit or explicit thinking of the people analyzing those data. Consider making those ideas explicit to advance your conversations.

After hearing from different team members’ perspectives, ask team members to share again their thoughts about how to rate the district’s or school’s current status. Would their initial rating change after hearing other perspectives? Again, the facilitator will need to ensure that the team considers all perspectives to develop the best information about the current experiences of the group of children facing success gaps in your district or school. Continue this process until all voices are heard.

If the team cannot reach a consensus because members need additional information or data are unavailable immediately, note the additional information the team requires and determine which team member is responsible for bringing the data back to the team. When the team reconvenes, come back to any outstanding items, review the additional data, and use that information to reach a consensus on any outstanding indicators.

Keep in Mind

If disagreements persist, acknowledge and appreciate the varied perspectives and decide how to move forward. Of utmost importance during these discussions is to ensure that all voices are heard and individual views are respected. To understand the systemic barriers the student group faces, team members must remember that others’ experiences are different, valid, and important.

4. Use the rubric results to determine actionable root causes

Once the team has thoroughly discussed and, if possible, reached a consensus on each indicator, your team can use the rubric results alongside the success gap statement and data to explore root causes. The facilitator can begin the discussion by asking team members what patterns they notice in the rubric ratings and what data support those patterns.

  • Which rubric indicators show the greatest need for improvement?
  • Are there items of evidence that are common across multiple indicators?
  • What do these patterns or trends suggest may be the barriers to all children or youth experiencing success?

Next, the team should consider how the patterns or potential barriers they have identified contribute to the success gap statement. Make a list of possible root causes. Compare the team’s thoughts about root causes to the data that you analyzed before the team completed the rubric.

  • Do the data support (or at least not contradict) the root causes the team has identified?
  • How does the list of root causes align with the experiences of team members?
  • Are there any other data or evidence that the team needs to research before making a final decision about root causes?

Once the team feels confident that the elements they have identified are a good fit for the rubric results and the success gap statement, the team will need to determine which of the identified root causes are actionable. While it is important to acknowledge root causes outside your district’s or school’s control, encourage your team to focus their primary efforts on areas where the team can initiate change and improvement.

5. Prioritize actionable root causes

After determining which of the identified root causes are actionable, your team will prioritize the root cause(s). Identifying priorities is crucial because it is unlikely that your district or school will have the resources (time, personnel, and materials) to work toward eliminating all the identified root causes at once. Priority setting is about balancing factors such as urgency, availability of resources, and level of effort to identify where your district or school can exert its efforts best. This toolkit includes the Priority Setting Tool, which can help your team weigh considerations to determine priority areas. For each indicator, your team will document the identified actionable root causes and potential foci of your improvement work. The Priority Setting Tool helps the user rate each indicator from the rubric based on the urgency of the issue, the availability of resources to intervene, and the level of effort required to create change. The tool then helps the user calculate a priority recommendation based on these ratings. Any item with an urgency rated as critical will automatically appear as a high priority recommendation. In addition, items will appear as a higher priority if the team rated them as requiring a low level of effort—enabling your team to accomplish some quick wins.

Helpful Resources

Additional Resources

To find resources to support the facilitation of a success gaps meeting about the topics found on this page, see Facilitation Tools on the Resources and Downloads page.

Up Next:
Create an Action Plan

Develop an action plan that describes goals, tasks, and timelines for addressing the actionable root cause(s).