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Getting to the Root of the Gap

How your organization operates internally will affect student achievement initiatives by RONALD S. THOMAS

I have seen it happen over and over again in more than 10 years of working with school improvement teams. Team members prepare elaborate displays of data and do pretty good gap analyses to determine the areas varying the most from the standards.

Then immediately they jump to brainstorming and implementing initiatives to improve student performance in the identified areas. However, the step most critical to meeting rigorous achievement goals—developing a clear understanding of the root causes of the current state of achievement—is neglected or given short shrift.
It is easy to understand why. Educators tend to be problem solvers and action-oriented people. School improvement team members usually have many ideas based on prior experiences about what they think will lead to better student performance. Further, under pressure from high-stakes accountability measures, they seek to make a quick impact. They rush toward possible solutions without fully considering the root causes, hoping that a trial-and-error approach will hit the target by chance.

Perhaps most importantly, school teams tend to skip in-depth analysis because this is the first time the conversation must shift from the quality of student work to the actions of the adults in the school. This is a difficult discussion to have. Not only must hard questions be raised, but faculty and staff also must begin to accept responsibility for their success or failure to increase achievement.

Transforming Data
Fortunately, however, help is available for school teams at this tough stage. Because of the work of such experts as Michael Fullan, Peter Senge and Linda Darling-Hammond, we understand the importance of developing a learning organization. We have more in-depth knowledge about how educational systems and processes affect each other over time and about how they can be aligned to operate toward a common purpose.

The key is transforming data into knowledge that is both accessible to the whole organization and relevant to its core purpose.

Insights about how the organization operates internally, therefore, become critical as school improvement team members explore contributing factors to current achievement levels. The systems approach suggests that to understand and affect positively what is occurring in schools—the meaning to be found in the data—processes and structures that make up school must be carefully analyzed. Although these understandings have been around for decades, school teams rarely use them in their rush to action.

Root Causes
In Schools That Learn, Peter Senge defines a system as “any perceived whole whose elements ‘hang together’ because they continually affect each other over time.” Some of the most important school-based systems or processes are:

• Prevailing norms of staff behavior (school culture), including informal networks of teachers in the school;

• Knowledge and skill base of staff;

• Assignment of teachers and students to schools and classes;

• Use of time during the school day;

• Academic supports and assistance for students experiencing difficulty and the processes to ensure that all appropriate students are involved in them;

• Alignment of curriculum, instruction, and assessment; and

• Curriculum development and pacing.

Other key processes or systems in schools include policies of teacher selection, promotion, transfer and tenure; governance of the district; labor-management contracts for teachers and other staff; student discipline codes; use of school budgets, particularly discretionary funding such as grants; and the decision-making processes of the school through committees and teams.

Almost all root causes of low achievement can be traced back to interrelationships among the components of these systems or processes. For example, I have worked with high schools over the years where the culture is steeped in the belief that students in the community, because of their rural or poor background, lack the innate ability or parental support to be successful in high-level courses. Therefore the school offers no Advanced Placement courses.

Or there may be a schoolwide tradition of teacher isolation in which little professional collaboration takes place. In one elementary school in which I consulted, teachers were free to choose their own textbooks and curricula, resulting in a different reading series being used in each grade level and no schoolwide reading scope and sequence. I’ve also visited middle schools in which time is being used inefficiently, with long transition gaps between subjects and much nonacademic “downtime” for students each day during recess, after lunch and homeroom periods.

School improvement teams need to look carefully at how each part of the whole school operation works in support of—or in opposition to—the school’s student achievement goals. Only then can the most powerful core strategies be formulated to attack the root causes. If anything other than the root is addressed by the implemented strategy, achievement increases are unlikely to occur.

Furthermore, when teams discuss “Why is achievement at its current levels?” and “What system processes can increase student performance?” they are not pointing fingers at individuals and blaming people. More significantly, they are identifying the most powerful points of leverage in the organization that need to be modified if the school is to meet the desired achievement targets.

A Questioning Process
Looking at systems within schools is in many ways like peeling an onion. When one layer peels away, another deeper layer is exposed. One effective way to begin peeling back the layers of the onion is for school teams to ask a series of “why” questions. In his book Schools of Quality, John Jay Bonstingl reminds us of the Japanese tradition that suggests that only after answering the “why” question five times will the true causes of a problem begin to emerge.

To arrive at the root cause, each why question should be increasingly detailed and dig deeper into the data than the previous ones. Teams should repeatedly ask, “Why is this occurring?” “Why is this occurring?” “Why is this occurring?”

Admittedly, linking cause and effect is difficult to do in a school setting where a complex mix of inputs and processes influences student achievement. The goal of the team’s conversation, however, should be to identify as clearly as possible the relationships of the organizational factors that lie beneath the data. Areas to examine include the consistency of instruction from teacher to teacher, the focus and followup of the professional development conducted at the school over the past few years, and the relationship of school’s instructional program to the required state assessments. Examine how these and other systemic processes might be better aligned to increase student performance.

For example, if state test scores are low, a school team might consider “why” questions about the extent to which teachers are basing their daily instruction on the state standards (instructional processes). Why is misalignment possibly occurring? Perhaps it is because teachers do not understand the specific content embedded in the standards (knowledge and skill base of staff). Why is this occurring? Because state standards may be convoluted and vague.

A systems-oriented response from the school would be a professional development initiative, allowing teachers time, under the expert guidance of curriculum specialists, to “unpack” the meaning of state standards and to identify the grade-by-grade expectations students will need to meet to be successful on the state assessment (professional development). Study groups might be established, permitting teachers an ongoing venue in which they can work collegially to develop a standards-based instructional program (school culture).

Or suppose a high school improvement team is presented data indicating that a large number of students are receiving A’s and B’s in Algebra I coursework and yet are not passing the districtwide final examination. Why is this occurring? Perhaps there are disconnects between the expectations of the teachers and the rigor and approach of the district (knowledge and skill base of staff).

Why is this occurring? Newer, inexperienced teachers are assigned to teach freshman courses such as Algebra I while veteran instructors with greater content expertise are scheduled for upper-level Advanced Placement courses (assignment of teachers to classes). Why is this occurring? The school norm has been, over the years, that senior staff members determine their own schedules. They usually choose advanced classes, leaving introductory courses to faculty newcomers (school culture). One systems-based approach would be to initiate a formal schedule-development process, perhaps in concert with the teachers’ union, to ensure that teacher expertise and experience is matched with course requirements and student need (school culture).

A final example: Disaggregated achievement data show that the performance of students in one teacher’s class is consistently below that of others in the same grade. Why is this occurring? Drop-in observations and walk-throughs by members of the administrative team reveal that, to maintain classroom order, the teacher has apparently made a tacit agreement with the students that, if they don’t cause trouble, they will not be held accountable for high levels of learning.

Why is this occurring? The teacher is new and sought advice from other faculty about how to deal with discipline problems (informal networks of teachers). Why is this occurring? The teacher has been pretty much left on his own since the start of the year (school culture). Why is this occurring? There is no induction or mentoring program in the school (support for teachers). The district could establish a formal induction process and mentoring program to provide ongoing support for new teachers so they can gain classroom control and focus on quality instruction.

Eventually, the response to the “why” questions may lead the school team to suggest a solution that is outside the power of the school to change. For example, the root cause might be identified by the school as a high mobility rate in which classes turn over several times during the school year. When causes outside the school’s circle of influence are identified, the team should trace the line of thinking back to the related factor most within the control of the school to affect. In this case, that might be the lack of consistent curriculum and expectations among the schools that share students. This then becomes the root cause to be addressed in the school plan.

Systems Thinking
School improvement teams no longer can afford not to incorporate these organizational insights into their decision-making processes. Schools no longer can suffer through one short-term and fragmented initiative after another that fail to make a difference in student learning. However, with a carefully conceived systems analysis approach in place, school improvement teams can use organizational insights to identify and address the real root causes and achieve the student performance advances they always wanted.

Ronald Thomas is associate director of the Center for Leadership in Education at Towson University, 8000 York Road, Towson, MD 21252. E-mail: rathomas@towson.edu. He formerly was assistant to the superintendent for educational accountability in Baltimore County, Md. The author acknowledges the help of Roxana Della Vecchia and Michael Hickey, both of Towson University’s College of Education.