Purposes of Root Cause Analysis in School Improvement Planning

Root cause analysis is one part of a broader continuous improvement process, which is outlined in the U.S. Department of Education’s (ED’s) Non-Regulatory Guidance: Using Evidence to Strengthen Education Investments. The first step in evidence use described in the non-regulatory guidance (Step 1: Identify Local Needs) includes gathering and examining needs assessment data “to understand the most pressing needs of students, schools, and/or educators and the potential root causes of those needs.” During Step 1, school and district leaders can integrate root cause analysis processes into their local needs assessments or use root cause analysis processes to better understand initial needs assessment results. School and district leaders can also use root cause analysis processes to identify evidence-based practices, serving as a bridge to the second step in the cycle of evidence outlined in the non-regulatory guidance (Step 2: Select Relevant, Evidence-Based Interventions).

There are many different ways to conduct a root cause analysis. Typically, a root cause analysis process includes three overarching steps: identifying a problem, identifying the causes of the problem, and identifying strategies to address the problem. More information on these steps and processes is included in the next section of this resource, Approaches to Root Cause Analysis.

Conducting a root cause analysis can help schools and districts strengthen their school improvement planning efforts in a variety of ways. For schools and districts that have already conducted a needs assessment, engaging in a root cause analysis process can help stakeholders (including school staff, students and families, and community members) generate deeper insights about the local needs identified. Using a root cause analysis process, stakeholders can analyze data (i.e., needs assessment data and other local data) to generate insights that reveal the key factors contributing to those needs. Likewise, using a root cause analysis process can help stakeholders prioritize which problems, factors, or root causes to address first (i.e., those that have the greatest impact).

Engaging in a root cause analysis process can also help stakeholders focus on the areas of greatest need identified through their needs assessment. In particular, when considering potential interventions to selected challenges, engaging in a root cause analysis process can help stakeholders make more informed decisions. Using a root cause analysis process can help stakeholders ensure that their selected changes, interventions, or practices are appropriately aligned to identified root causes and supported by evidence, rather than “quick fixes” that may not have a significant impact on the root cause and therefore not lead to meaningful change over time. The ultimate outcome of engaging in a root cause analysis process as part of school improvement planning is to identify, select, and plan for implementation of specific evidence-based practices or interventions that are likely to remove the root cause or mitigate the chances of root causes (and subsequent challenges) recurring.