School Profile B: Bravo Middle School

Bravo Middle School is a relatively small middle school, serving just under 250 students, located in a midsize American city. Bravo Middle has been in the same building for the last 30 years, which is divided between Bravo Middle and a public charter K–8 school. The community around Bravo Middle also has changed in the past 30 years, shifting from a middle-class neighborhood to one with increasing levels of poverty and crime. Most of the students who attend Bravo Middle live in the neighborhood, yet a growing number of students travel to Bravo Middle from other neighborhoods. Most of the students who attend Bravo Middle come from lower socio-economic households and face challenges related to inter-generational poverty, educational attainment, and racial discrimination. Most students at Bravo Middle are African American (as they have been historically), and the school staff generally reflects the student body in terms of race.

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Part 1: Developing a Problem Statement

Bravo Middle began the root cause analysis process by convening a school-leadership team for a 2-hour meeting focused on analyzing data, identifying one core problem1 to address, and crafting a problem statement. The school-leadership team was small, consisting of only the principal, vice principal, and school climate lead; these staff were joined by a district comprehensive support and improvement (CSI) specialist and external facilitators with expertise in root cause analysis trained by the district. The principal at Bravo Middle has been in the role for 2 years and has spent the last several years moving across schools as a turnaround expert. The principal has participated in root cause analysis processes at previous schools. The vice principal and school climate lead, however, have both worked at Bravo Middle for several years and were unfamiliar with the root cause analysis process.

Describing the School “Data Story”

To begin the root cause analysis process, the staff first analyzed school data individually for just under an hour. These school data included the school report card, needs-assessment data, and school performance on district reading and math assessments. Staff expressed that although they were not unfamiliar with these data, this was the first time they had ever seen the data in the same place at the same time. After this review of the data, the team identified many data points they felt were significant. As staff shared these data points, the expert facilitators wrote them down on sticky notes and organized them into loose categories.

Facilitation Best Practice

The expert facilitators intermittently asked, “How do you know this from looking at this data?” to help keep staff focused on the Bravo Middle data story and prevent speculation.

Staff quickly noticed the main data point that had led to Bravo Middle being identified for comprehensive support and improvement (CSI): fewer than 5% of its students are proficient in reading or math. However, many of the other data points staff noticed seemed to add to a more complex and less clear picture of overall school performance. Using sticky notes, the group compiled the individual data points they noticed and then collaboratively organized the data points by category. The initial “data story” for Bravo Middle is shown in Table 1.

Table 1. Bravo Middle “Data Story”

Student Academic Performance Student Population and Engagement Teacher and Leader Support
  • More than 80% of students are two or more levels below grade level in reading or mathematics.
  • Fewer than 5% of students are proficient in reading or mathematics.
  • Students have shown a small amount of growth in reading and mathematics for the past 3 years, with slightly higher growth in mathematics.
  • More than 30% of students have identified disabilities.
  • Enrollment has increased steadily over the past 3 years due to mid-year transfer students.
  • Overall attendance rates have recently increased to just above 80%.
  • There are many chronically absent students (65%) (i.e., more than 10% of school days missed).
  • The percentage of homeless students has increased from 5% to 16% in the past 3 years.
  • Suspension rates have decreased steadily in the past 3 years.
  • Attendance rates are negatively correlated with incidences of violence in the community.
  • Nearly half the teachers have fewer than 3 years of experience and 25% are uncertified; 30% of staff are teaching at least one out-of-field course.
  • Teacher attendance rates are high.
  • There has been a new principal every year for the past 5 years.
  • The number of support staff “on paper” is misleading because they only work part-time or are assigned to a small cohort of high-needs students (rather than the whole school).

In analyzing these data, the staff noted that, although they knew students’ low academic performance was their primary concern, there were many data elements that appeared to contribute to this issue. In this discussion, staff noted the following:

  • Staff expressed some confusion in trying to reconcile the general attendance data with the chronic absenteeism data, coming to the conclusion that although some students are attending school more often, other students are increasingly absent. Staff also reflected that chronic absenteeism may be preventing many students from making academic growth.
  • Staff believe that they have made some major improvements in the past 3 years, especially in behavior management and student engagement, that are not apparent in the data.
  • Teachers are working hard to support students, but they don’t have the human resources needed to address students’ behavioral, social, and mental health needs.

Identifying Data Themes

Once staff were able to describe the Bravo Middle “data story,” they considered how important and feasible it would be to address each of the data points, which allowed them to narrow down which data points to prioritize in the root cause analysis process. All staff agreed that most students’ low academic performance in reading and math were the primary issues and that other data points helped explain part of the larger “story” behind these performance gaps. Through discussion, staff identified several themes behind the data to better explain students’ low academic performance:

  • High teacher turnover rates have a negative impact on school climate and culture, as many teachers are dismissed for poor performance in addition to those who leave voluntarily.
  • Because there is a high percentage of students with learning and behavioral challenges schoolwide (30% officially identified and approximately 70% in total), every classroom has to function like a special education inclusion classroom; however, few teachers have the knowledge or skills to effectively teach these students.
  • The current curriculum does not include any intervention resources, so teachers often struggle to find supplemental materials to help meet students’ learning needs.
  • Although some students attend school regularly, those with chronic absenteeism show very low growth due to less instructional time.
  • Suspensions have been decreasing since implementing restorative justice practices and positive behavior interventions and supports (PBIS), but chronic absenteeism can make these approaches less effective.
  • Economic challenges in the community or issues with public transportation can lead to absenteeism (especially around holidays).
  • The student population has been changing slightly – although neighborhood poverty has gone down overall, there is an influx in students from other neighborhoods.
  • There is low family engagement schoolwide.

Key Challenge Identified

Low teacher readiness and engagement in meeting students’ developmental and learning needs.

Staff agreed that while these themes were not surprising, it was less clear how they should prioritize a problem to address. To decide, each of the three leadership team members shared their top vote and reasoning why. The school-climate lead voted for attendance because of the potential to build on previous successes related to behavior management; alternatively, the vice-principal and principal voted for improving teacher development, including positive rapport with students, social-emotional supports, and high-quality instruction. Although the school climate lead initially disagreed due to the lack of experienced or highly effective teachers at Bravo Middle, they quickly agreed that improving teacher practice could have a major positive impact on Bravo Middle overall.

Crafting the Problem Statement

Bravo Middle Problem Statement

Teachers are not prepared or able to provide the instruction and support students need to stay engaged and succeed in school.

In the end, the final problem statement staff crafted for Bravo Middle read: “Teachers are not prepared or able to provide the instruction and support students need to stay engaged and succeed in school.” Although staff agreed that chronic absenteeism is a major issue, they also anticipated that many of the challenges related to attendance may be issues they cannot solve at the school level (e.g., students having to take care of family members at home). However, teacher effectiveness (which can be addressed at the school level) can have impact on multiple issues: great teachers can motivate students to come to school and can help improve student achievement. Staff also reflected on their own first-year teaching experiences, noting that access to supports such as coaches can help teachers feel less overwhelmed and more willing to actively help students improve.

Overarching Facilitation Best Practices

Throughout the process to analyze school data and develop a problem statement, the expert facilitators used several facilitation approaches to keep the conversation productive and focused:

  • Grounded in the data: When the discussion veered into speculation, the expert facilitators would ask staff about which data point led to their observation, keeping the conversation grounded in the data at hand.
  • Take it step-by-step: The expert facilitators previewed the different parts of the root cause analysis process so that they could stay grounded in their current step of the root cause analysis process. When leadership team members were identifying data themes and crafting the problem statement, for example, they knew that they would be able to further analyze causes during the upcoming “five whys” activity, which helped deter the group from engaging in analysis or identifying solutions too soon.
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Part 2: Identifying Causes

A few days after the meeting to craft the problem statement, the Bravo Middle leadership team reconvened along with three additional school staff (two teachers and one literacy coach). The first meeting with the leadership team staff had been relatively short, but this meeting with the broader stakeholder group was scheduled for most of the day to allow adequate time for discussion and collaborative decision-making.

Orientation and Review

Facilitation Best Practice

Although reviewing the entire school data story (rather than skipping straight to the problem statement) took additional time, this step helped build quick buy-in across the new participants and provided reference points for later discussions.

To begin, the principal and other members of the leadership team reviewed the data analysis, themes, and final problem statement with the group, giving a comprehensive overview of the Bravo Middle data story and key data points they noted from the initial meeting. The expert facilitators then asked the group to reflect on how the data and problem statement presented reconciled with their individual perspectives and experiences at Bravo Middle. The group expressed that all the data shared was unsurprising and that the focus on improving teacher effectiveness felt appropriate, with many challenges that they could feasibly address.

Identifying Causal Factors

Having identified teacher effectiveness as the issue to improve, the group began discussing possible reasons behind the problem (i.e., the causal factors). After identifying the primary problem to analyze through the root cause analysis process (i.e., developing the problem statement), the next step of the process was to identify the possible causal factors. The group began identifying potential causal factors2 for the problem statement through silent brainstorming time, writing each one down on a sticky note and placing them on a large whiteboard. The group generated a large number of potential causal factors for the problem statement (see Table 2 below).

Table 2. Bravo Middle’s Potential Causal Factors Around Teacher Effectiveness

Student Factors Teacher Factors Other Factors
  • Students don’t take tests or school seriously.
  • Most students are four grade levels below proficiency in reading and mathematics when they enter sixth grade.
  • Many students have learning or behavior disabilities.
  • Students have poor attendance, reducing their instructional time with teachers.
  • There is a large influx of students (transferring from other schools) in the second semester.
  • Teachers have poor classroom management skills.
  • Teachers have poor time management skills and extensive reporting demands on top of instructional time.
  • Teachers have limited knowledge or skills related to supporting students with disabilities.
  • Teachers are unwilling to put in time beyond their contract.
  • Teachers need more time and support to understand and balance many competing priorities and responsibilities.
  • Teachers rarely meet with school leaders to discuss their practice.
  • Teachers do not have direct access to instructional supports.
  • Teachers struggle to communicate effectively with families.
  • Bravo Middle just received funds to purchase intervention materials, but staff are unclear on what resources are available and the procurement process.
  • The school schedule does not allow time for collaboration or professional development.

Through this discussion, the group skipped over supports provided to teachers by the leadership team, focusing instead on the challenges teachers face; however, the group made a note to talk about the role of the leadership team in supporting teachers later in the process.

Next, the expert facilitators asked the group to come up to the wall and organize the potential causal factors into four “starter” categories: (1) curriculum, (2) school leadership, (3) climate, and (4) student engagement. After the group organized the self-adhesive notes into the four categories, the whole group engaged in a “notice and wonder” reflection about the potential causal factors. In this exercise, the group noted the following:

  • Teachers do not have access to any trainings tailored to their needs.
  • Given teachers’ overall lack of experience, most do not have the necessary behavior management or instructional skills needed for success at the beginning of the school year.
  • Student attendance has dropped since the number of incidences of violence has increased.

At this point in the discussion, the group considered the new supports they have tried to provide teachers this year, including content leads, planning for professional development strategically, and analyzing student data. The challenge, they explained, was that although they were implementing many new supports, they were inconsistently implemented across the school. The group expressed a desire to have more focused, centralized time and decision-making around data and instructional leadership. Likewise, the group shared that teachers want more direct, in-person support from school leaders. Finally, the group shared that they needed to make critical improvements in how they support teachers in making improvements, including building relationships, modeling practice, and fostering trust. Through this discussion, the group prioritized developing the following causal factor statements for school leadership, climate, and student engagement (see Table 3 below).

Table 3. Bravo Middle’s Causal Factor Statements Around Teacher Effectiveness

School Leadership Climate Student Engagement
School leaders need to provide more consistent support across the building. There is a need to improve communication across school staff. Students are not motivated to come to school.

Once these causal factor statements were drafted and agreed upon, the group transcribed them in the outer boxes in a fishbone diagram in preparation for the next activity: analyzing underlying and root causes.

Analyzing Underlying and Root Causes

Facilitation Best Practice

The expert facilitators encouraged the group to engage in open dialogue about perceived root causes prior to engaging in the “five whys” protocol so they could put “all their ideas on the table” and sort out the relationships afterwards. This put the group at ease and helped the process move quickly.

Prior to analyzing the underlying and root causes for each causal factor statement, the principal left the room to attend a meeting off-site and did not return for the remainder of the root cause analysis process. The group collaboratively engaged in a “five whys” protocol for each of the causal factor statements. The discussions during the “five whys” protocol quickly uncovered tensions with the principal as part of the underlying causes for identified challenges, which participants shared they had not felt comfortable discussing openly when the principal was in the room. The group described how the principal was rarely in the school building and left many administrative responsibilities to the leadership team, yet also closely controlled their actions when in the building. For example, the principal had committed to conducting classroom observations, rather than delegating all observations to other school leaders, but had not yet conducted any as of mid-spring. Although the teachers were grateful to have supports from content leads, the group expressed that the inconsistent leadership had led to less trust, communication, and engagement from teachers overall. The group also clarified that their challenges related to the principal’s management behaviors rather than the structure of their instructional leadership roles.

In the end, the group still agreed that the main problem at hand was teacher effectiveness; however, the group expressed that recognizing ineffective school leadership as the root cause of this problem was both stressful and a relief. After the non-linear discussion, the group was able to rapidly develop their fishbone diagram and commit to moving on to strategy selection. The final fishbone diagram is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Bravo Middle’s Fishbone Diagram of Underlying and Root Causes

Endpoint is Low Student Performance. Contributing factors are School Leadership, Climate, and Student Engagement. Each of these have further contributing factors.

Root Cause Identified

School leaders do not provide teachers with the effective supports or trusting climate required to improve their practice.

After developing an initial fishbone diagram, the group voted together as to whether they believed each of these categories showed contributing causes (i.e., causes that may or may not have to be addressed) or root causes (i.e., causes that must be considered to address the problem). Almost immediately, the group agreed that ineffective school leadership is the main root cause of the problem statement, whereas the other causal factors include contributing causes (rather than root causes). The group recognized that while many of them felt individually prepared to support teachers, they did not feel they had the autonomy or support to do so. With the root cause of the problem statement successfully identified, the group moved on to the final part of the root cause analysis process: identifying strategies.

icon of a lightbulb as puzzle pieces

Part 3: Identifying Solutions

In pivoting to strategy selection, the group expressed a feeling of accomplishment for their work so far and excitement about identifying potential solutions. However, it is important to note that the group had limited time to discuss strategies, as they used most of their time to come to consensus on the identified root cause. When brainstorming strategies to address the root cause (i.e., school leaders not providing teachers with the effective supports or trusting climate required to improve their practice), the expert facilitators asked the group to consider both the feasibility and importance of the strategies they brainstormed, thinking about what might have the biggest impact on their problem. The final list of strategies included the following:

  • Analyze observation data to create more targeted supports for teachers.
  • Implement strategies to boost recognition of returning teachers (e.g., small gifts).
  • Find collaborative time to analyze student data alongside teachers.
  • Reinforce consistency and accountability for implementing new systems such as PBIS.
  • Clarify communications around the schoolwide plan and areas for improvement.
  • Model expectations and best practices.
  • Meet more consistently as a leadership team to discuss schoolwide issues.
  • Identify coaches (formal or informal) who can provide in-person, collaborative support.
  • Identify resources to help the school leadership team improve its communication and processes.

In the end, the group recognized that although root cause analysis had been a painful process for them, staff and leadership remain dedicated to the school community and the students. By engaging in the root cause analysis process, the group was able to collectively identify what was working well and what was not working well at Bravo Middle and agree on ways to move forward positively.

To learn more about how the root cause analysis process fits into the broader school improvement planning process, please see the Using Evidence to Strengthen Educational Investments non-regulatory guidance from the U.S. Department of Education.

1 The core problem identified in Bravo Middle School’s root cause analysis process was required to be related to school improvement.

2 While all causal factors are grounded in the needs assessment data, these factors are based in the perceptions of root cause analysis participants.