By: Edward Fergus 
As a significant portion of my career has been dedicated to identifying the root causes of disproportionality through extensive research and observation, it became imperative to create an analysis of these root causes that is accessible and impactful for educators at all levels. Through my research, I created the Disproportionality Root Cause Analysis. When working with schools, a paramount question I consistently ask about the type and frequency of prior analysis on equity concerns is, “Has your school or district conducted a root cause analysis in the last two to three years?”

The answers to this question allow understanding on different levels:

  • If the answer is yes, then what was the reception, process, outcome, implemented change, and inevitably, why do you need my help?
  • If the answer is no, then I ask why not, what is the interest for these conversations, and what are the underlying problems to consider when beginning this journey?

To truly get to the heart of disproportionality in schools, educators must first identify the root causes. It’s a process that requires time and effort but is certainly worth the investment of both. Let’s look at root cause analysis (RCA) and what it can reveal.

Root Cause Process for Understanding Disproportionality Problems

In generic terms, RCA refers to a data- and research-driven process for naming the causes of disproportionate patterns. The process involves both quantitative and qualitative data, and it often reveals the systematic nature of how procedure, practice, and policy gaps exist and can allow the presence of bias-based beliefs about marginalized populations to operate as a “rationale” for disproportionate patterns.

An RCA process—which I will cover in further detail in a future blog—can detect these practice and policy gaps and how bias-based beliefs operate in these practices and policies. The process can also target remedies while leaders change the pedagogical beliefs that get in the way of effective school environments.

The RCA process essentially covers three levels:

  1. Outcome Data—Define the magnitude of, timing, and/or location of outcome patterns in special education identification, discipline, and gifted/AP/honors enrollment.
  2. Process Data—Define the procedure, practice and policy artifacts and the manner of their operation (i.e., design, efficiency, and resources available). Define the gaps in practices and policies.
  3. Name the Root Causes—Define the connections between gaps in process data and outcome data.

Performing a root cause analysis is only the first step toward correcting disproportionality; once those causes have been identified, however, the appropriate efforts and measures can be taken to begin the remedying of the issues.

What a Root Cause Analysis Can Reveal

Each district and school obviously have its own strengths and areas for opportunity when it comes to equity, so the findings from a root cause analysis will ultimately vary based on a variety of factors. However, through 10 years of research as director and co-principal investigator of the New York State Center on Disproportionality, my RCA process revealed a few common root causes of disproportionality within education across more than 100 school districts nationwide.

  1. Gaps in Curriculum and Instructional Implementation Disproportionately Affect Struggling Learners. The wellness of instruction and curriculum as it is represented in instructional support teams/teacher assistance teams, intervention services, assessment, and gifted and talented programs continuously emerged as maintaining gaps in practices that disproportionately affected struggling learners.
  1. Inconsistent Special Education Prereferral Process. The RCA process found that school districts maintained inconsistent prereferral information, as well as different forms for each school building within a district. Additionally, limited information existed regarding intervention strategies that were being used by educators.
  1. Limited Beliefs of Ability. The root cause analysis also determined that special education is viewed as “fixing” struggling students, and that poor and racial/ethnic minority students are viewed as not “ready” for school.

Performing your own RCA to determine the specific needs of your district or school may reveal entirely different results. And that is what makes the root cause analysis process so important for school leaders—because the issues of disproportionality and inequity in the classroom will not simply resolve themselves.

Equity Solutions Are Within Reach

All students deserve an equal opportunity to succeed in a positive, inclusive learning environment. That’s why it is incumbent upon schools to strive for equity in all aspects of education and school relationships.

An RCA series braided with focused professional development (PD) in Equity (as well as MTSS, Inclusive Practices, and SEL), Catapult Learning’s Professional Development Pathways prepare educators to address systems to support the whole child. Each pathway pairs engaging workshops with job-embedded coaching to cultivate learning environments in which all students can achieve success.

The Equity PD Pathway offers continual professional growth in equity, cultural proficiency, and social-emotional learning.

While a key advantage of the Equity PD Pathway is job-embedded coaching, you may also consider offering individual workshops when looking to help your district address bias-based beliefs and achieve equity at the school or district level. Some examples include:

  • Advancing Equity in the Classroom
    Learn how to foster meaningful teaching and learning that promotes equity by acknowledging, responding to, and celebrating students’ experiences.
  • Cultural Competence
    Define cultural competence; examine how cultural views, attitudes, and beliefs impact the way educators interact with and respond to their students; identify the stages of cultural awareness; and apply strategies and approaches to become a more culturally competent educator.
  • Promoting a Safe and Positive School Climate
    Studies have found that schools can address the root causes of bullying and related forms of school violence by prioritizing the development of a positive school climate. Participants will explore ways to increase trust, accountability, inclusivity, and a stronger sense of community within their school.

In addition, Catapult Learning offers school needs assessments, school transformation programs, and special consulting sessions with me to help overcome significant disproportionality.

If you’re interested in a consulting session with me, please contact [email protected].