Practice Activity: Leading a Problem Clarification Process
Lead a problem clarification process
Clarifying why your data results look like they do will increase the odds that the strategies you select to improve student performance will produce the results you want. In the data analysis step, you collected and examined data to provide a clearer picture of your school’s student performance and prioritized areas of instructional need. In this step, you will examine why the data looks like it does. You will explore the contributing factors and root causes that are impeding student achievement in a specific area so that you can identify appropriate strategies that address the real problem. This is a critical step in helping to ensure that instructional strategies and resources address the problem that is impeding achievement. A typical solution to low achievement in many of our schools is to try anything and everything we can think of to improve achievement. That is often an exhausting, unfocused and unproductive strategy to improve performance.

In the previous practice activity, you collected information about your instructional program. You are now ready to complete the problem clarification process. The fishbone is a useful problem solving tool for both identifying key processes as well as for clarifying your problem. When trying to identify the problem, it is important to have the input of the major constituents (teachers, administrators, parents, and students), since perceptions and attitudes among groups may be very different. When you have identified possible contributing factors, you may need to collect additional data to validate your hypotheses. Only after you complete the problem clarification process are you ready to identify strategies to address the problem.

The fishbone entitled, "MSA and Our Instructional Program," is a graphic organizer that will promote discussion and identification of some key information about the instructional program. When you have collected the information about your instructional program, you are ready to hypothesize what your high impact problem is. You will want to identify appropriate times to solicit feedback from a variety of groups including all of your staff and other representative stakeholders.

A principal might introduce the fishbone exercise at a staff meeting and then assign grade-level, interdisciplinary, or department teams to complete the worksheet. They can then report back their consensus on the high impact root causes or contributing factors at the following staff meeting. Though you could also make the assignment directly to the team or department leaders, introducing the exercise at a staff meeting communicates a clear message to all staff that this is an important exercise. The principal might also facilitate the fishbone exercise with the PTA Board or a selected group of students, parents, and community members. You will also want to emphasize to your staff that the identification of the problem for your data being low in a specified area will drive the identification of the strategies needed to improve the results in your new school improvement plan. The more accurate your identification of the problem, the more likely you will choose strategies that result in improved performance.

Once you have identified a few root causes or contributing factors that have a high impact on your data results and are in your control, you need to make sure you have some evidence that these are indeed a problem at your school. You may have requested evidence that this was a root cause during the process. If so, you are ready to proceed to the next school improvement step. If you did not, then you will want to test your hypothesis in some way. The School Improvement Team could be charged with identifying a way to collect evidence that would validate or question the hypothesis. For example, if the staff decided that a high impact root cause was that teachers didn't know how the reading test was scored and, therefore, what was being asked for, then you might survey the staff to collect data whether that was true or not. You could either ask them if they knew what the test was looking for or ask them to complete this statement at a staff meeting, "The MSA reading test scores a student's response satisfactory when it _____________."

After you have led staff through the problem clarification process, you might want to reflect on the process you used by focusing on the following questions:

  • How engaged were your staff in the process?
  • How comfortable were you with their problem solving and conclusions?
  • Were their conclusions based on any data or evidence?
  • What would you do differently if you led this process again?
  • Do you need to continue this process or are you able to move forward with their conclusions?

Listen to school leadership team staff discuss how they clarified their high impact problem and what they learned from the process:

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