The State and District Role in Root Cause Analysis

The State and District Role in Root Cause Analysis

The role of states and districts in supporting root cause analysis can vary. For instance, a state or district may require schools to use a specific model of root cause analysis as part of school improvement planning; alternatively, a state or district may allow schools to engage in root cause analysis at their own discretion and in their own way. This section highlights three ways states and districts can support root cause analysis at the school level: sharing guidance or resources, clarifying how root cause analysis fits into broader school improvement planning processes, and providing expert facilitation support.

Sharing Guidance and Resources

Developing and sharing guidance or resources on root cause analysis is one of the most straightforward supports states and districts can provide. Several states have already developed root cause analysis resources; for example:

Some regional service agencies and districts have also developed their own root cause analysis guidance and resources; for example,

Clarifying How Root Cause Analysis Fits Into School Improvement Planning Processes

Root cause analysis can be an effective bridge between needs assessment and selecting evidence-based practices; however, these three steps (i.e., needs assessment, root cause analysis, and selection of evidence-based practices) must be aligned and part of a single coherent system of using evidence in decision-making to achieve the desired impact. Including the same group of stakeholders in both root cause analysis and the selection of evidence-based strategies can promote transparency, trust, and buy-in.

States and districts may consider the following questions to ensure root cause analysis contributes value to the school improvement planning:

  • How does root cause analysis work with other steps in the cycle of evidence? For example:
    • How well do the needs assessment data lend themselves to defining the problem statement?
    • Are there structures or guidance in place defining how root cause identification can support the selection of evidence-based practices?
    • How will root causes inform improvement planning goals and strategies for implementation of evidence-based practices?
  • What support and process does the state or district provide (e.g., staff time, facilitation resources, off-site meeting space) to help school teams successfully conduct a root cause analysis?
  • Does the process for selecting evidence-based practices based on an identified root cause align with state and local priorities and improvement processes?
  • Are the results of root cause analysis and evidence-based practice selection integrated into school improvement goal-setting and other planning processes?
  • Do school teams have the resources and clarity they need to successfully transition from needs assessment to identification and implementation of evidence-based practices and how does root cause analysis aid in this transition?

In addition to these considerations, states and districts may also consider the following “lessons learned” from states that have already worked to determine how their needs assessment and root cause analysis processes support effective decision making:1

  • Consider the role of data. The data required for a successful root cause analysis depends on the type and breadth of data gathered through the needs assessment. If the needs assessment includes rigorous data analysis2 (e.g., the needs assessment process in Georgia (link is external)), the root cause analysis may not require additional data; however, states and districts with less robust needs assessment data may need to include additional data during root cause analysis. If a school or district plans to use only the needs assessment data in the root cause analysis process, clarify how the root cause analysis process will add value (e.g., promote deeper understanding of needs assessment data, help to identify improvement priorities). If schools plan to use needs assessment and data from other sources in the root cause analysis process, clarify the value of this new data and how schools will gather and organize the new data.
  • Focus on maximizing results and minimizing burden. Schools can engage in root cause analysis at a variety of points in the continuous improvement process; however, because root cause analysis can be time-intensive (and sometimes emotionally taxing for participants), it may be more beneficial to focus on just a few high-priority needs during root cause analysis to maximize the return on investment for school efforts.
  • Support stakeholder participation. Root cause analysis offers a great opportunity for a variety of stakeholders to offer fresh perspectives and push group thinking about how to best address challenges in their school.

Providing Expert Facilitation Support

In practice, root cause analysis can be complex, dynamic, and mentally demanding for participants. Engaging in a root cause analysis process may be challenging for school staff for a variety of reasons, including the following:3

  • Reconciling preconceived ideas with actual data
  • Accurately assessing the feasibility of addressing complex social challenges
  • Taking ownership of challenges and past decisions that did not adequately address the needs of the school and its students
  • Focusing on root causes within the stakeholder and school control
  • Managing difficult dynamics between school leaders, staff, and other stakeholders
  • Managing emotions when trying to solve significant challenges

An experienced and effective facilitator can guide participants through the root cause analysis process to help ensure the process is meaningful and successful. Engaging external facilitators to support schools in conducting a root cause analysis can create conditions that allow all staff and stakeholders to participate equally, which can allow participants to reach consensus or resolve tensions quickly, ensure equity of input, and promote consistency in approaches across schools. Likewise, expert facilitators can act as an impartial voice in discussions, help keep participants organized and on-track, and help ensure that the results of the root cause analysis can meaningfully inform the selection of evidence-based practices. Expert facilitators can use skills such as trust building, active listening, and facilitation as they guide the group through the root cause analysis process.

To learn more about what root cause analysis looks like in action, please click on the link below for the next section of this resource.

Click here to go to the next section: Root Cause Analysis in Action.

1 These lessons learned were gathered from states that participated in the Implementing Needs Assessment Community of Practice and states participating in individualized technical assistance focused on root cause analysis. [Back].

2 For more information, please see the State Support Network’s Needs Assessment Guidebook; specifically, page 6 on Rigorous Data Analysis. [Back].

3 See Wagner, Travis P. 2015. “Using Root Cause Analysis in Public Policy.” Journal of Public Affairs Education 20, no.3: 429-440; Davide Nicolini, Justin Waring, & Jeanne Mengis. (2011). “The challenges of undertaking root cause analysis in health care: A qualitative study.” Journal of Health Services Research and Policy 16, no. 1; Okes, Duke. (2008). “The Human Side of Root Cause Analysis.” The Journal for Quality and Participation 31, no. 3, pp. 20-22, 29. [Back].