When a school is not achieving the academic results it hopes, school leaders often bring in somewhat arbitrarily selected improvement strategies from outside environments to achieve different results.  Teachers, staff and leaders pour their energy into executing these new improvement strategies.  When the results don’t come in, though, frustration sets in.

The College’s Shelby Cosner, PhD, associate professor of policy studies, is working with Chicago principals to consider a different approach.  As a kick-off to the 2016-2017 school year, Cosner presented a keynote address to all CPS principals on root cause problem analysis, a process that can be enacted as a step in the implementation of a multi-tier system of support (MTSS) advocated by Chicago Public Schools leadership.

“Many schools don’t start by finding problems within the school that are influencing current student learning, they start by selecting a strategy,” Cosner said. “By leading with a problem-finding process, improvement strategies are selected that are aligned to the particular problems of a school.”

The MTSS contains five components, one of which is the problem-solving process.  CPS teachers and administrators had completed a self-assessment of their understanding of the MTSS problem solving process, and feedback revealed both groups were not well-versed in the problem solving process,  particularly root cause problem solving.

Cosner encourages principals to think about instruction as the primary lever that impacts student learning. When a student learning problem is identified, Cosner argues an instructional problem is likely at root.  In addition to identifying student learning problems, schools need to look backward and understand weaker elements of prior instructional practice and consider how prior instruction has cultivated current student learning results. She uses an analogy of weeds and soil to illustrate:  a gardener may seed the weed, representing the student learning problem, but needs to explore what’s going on under the soil to fully rectify the problem.

Cosner says the collection and exploration of student learning and instructional data is key if such problems are going to be understood. She says schools mostly create and utilize student data systems that surface student learning problems. In the absence of instructional data systems schools often speculate on what is happening to motivate the student learning problem. In contrast, when schools are able to find both student and instructional problems, they have better information for the selection of strategies. Cosner calls these improvement strategies “impact strategies” because they are designed to impact the root cause.

Strong root cause problem finding is critical work in all schools and principals play a key role in helping schools develop the systems and processes necessary for such work to be undertaken.