The University of Iowa

Ensuring Focus on the Right Issues to Improve Literacy: the PROPeL Initiative

Tree roots covered in moss

The root cause of a literacy challenge is the deep and fundamental reason for the challenge.


Posted on: April 11, 2017

Editor's note: This is the second in a series of posts related to our newest initiative Practitioners and Researchers Overcoming Problems of Literacy (PROPeL).

In our previous blog post about Phase 1 of PROPeL, we explained the importance of teamwork in defining the literacy challenges that face our partner alternative schools and juvenile justice facilities. Once these challenges have been defined, our partner teams now need to make sure they are working on the right root cause to improve the literacy outcomes of students in their schools.

PROPeL Phase 2: Identifying the Root Cause

When addressing the needs of students who are struggling with literacy, district or school systems need to plan in a thoughtful and informed manner, rather than jumping to conclusions about the nature of the problem. Consider the following questions:

  • Do you fully understand why your students are not meeting literacy benchmarks?
  • Do you know exactly why your students are having literacy challenges?
  • Do you have data to support your beliefs?
  • Do classroom teachers review student literacy data in an attempt to improve instruction and student outcomes in isolation, or is this done by a multidisciplinary, problem-solving team that reflects all parts of the system?

A root cause is a deep and fundamental reason for a specific problem. Determining the root cause through a root cause analysis enables the creation of targeted actions to prevent the problem from reoccurring. When a district or building level team conducts root cause analysis, it ultimately:

  • Helps to end the problem.
  • Conserves resources because time and money are being spent on the right issues.
  • Facilitates discussion among team members and, therefore, all parts of the system.
  • Provides rationale for strategy or intervention selection, as opposed to patching with a quick fix.

Three Types of Root Causes

Shivas (2014) states that systems, such as schools, will usually find three basic types of root causes.

Automobile broken down

Even if the root cause of an automobile malfunction is apparent, it may have been an organizational breakdown that led to an accident.
  1. Physical causes: Tangible, material items that failed in some way. An example of a physical cause of an automobile’s malfunction would be when the brakes stop working.
  2. Human causes: People did something wrong or did not do something that was needed. Human causes typically lead to physical causes. Using the car example, the human cause might be that no one filled the brake fluid, which led to the brakes failing.
  3. Organizational causes: A system, process, or policy that people use to make decisions or do their work is faulty. An organizational cause for the car example could be that no one person was responsible for vehicle maintenance, and everyone assumed someone else had filled the brake fluid.

Examples of the three basic types of root causes in the field of reading education:

  1. Physical cause: Reading interventions are not implemented with fidelity.
  2. Human cause: Building principals do not conduct routine classroom observations to ensure the reading interventions are implemented with fidelity or to trigger additional support for the teachers.
  3. Organizational cause: There are no required district procedures for building principals or others in literacy leadership roles to monitor implementation fidelity.

Root cause analysis should consider all three types of causes. It is important that no part of the system be considered sacred or off limits when attempting to identify a root cause. It is possible to have more than one root cause creating a particular problem, especially with something as complex as public education and poor student literacy outcomes. Potential root causes could range from teachers with limited training opportunities, to adults with low student expectations, to a lack of district policies and procedures. Root cause analysis will find hidden (and not so hidden) flaws in the system, thereby discovering specific actions that contribute to the problem.

When Is a Cause a Root Cause?

Preuss (2003) states that if the answer is “yes” to any of the following questions, you have not identified the root cause (p. 12):

  • Would the problem have occurred if the cause had not been present?
  • Will the problem reoccur if the cause is corrected?
  • Will correction of the cause lead to similar events?

On the other hand, Preuss (2003) further explains that if a team affirms each of the following, they have identified a root cause (p. 13):

  • The team has no further questions when asking what led to the proposed root cause.​
  • Everyone agrees that this is a root cause.​
  • The cause is logical, makes sense, and provides clarity to the problem.​
  • The cause is something that you can influence and control.​
  • If the cause is dissolved/corrected, there is a realistic hope that the problem can be prevented in the future.​

Those in the field of education have a history of trying quick fixes to solve problems. Although understandable in the fast-paced teaching environment with accountability measures looming, jumping from one quick fix to the next creates an environment of constant change, wasted resources, and an inefficient system leading to little or no improvement in student outcomes. In order to avoid expending resources and precious time on the wrong issues, it is critical to know you are solving the problem at its root.


Preuss, P. G. (2003). School Leader's Guide to Root Cause Analysis: Using Data to Dissolve Problems. Larchmont, NY: Eye on Education.

Shivas (2014, October 23). Importance of Root Cause Analysis. Retrieved from