Understanding Disproportionality Part 3: TAC-D’s Root Cause Analysis Approach

Written by Jaspreet Kaur

Part 1 and Part 2 of this series on disproportionality covered what the problem of disproportionality is and how it presents itself throughout the education system. This piece and the final (upcoming) piece of this series highlights the transformative work the Technical Assistance Center on Disproportionality (TAC-D) engages in to dismantle this harmful trend within our schools.

Disproportionality Framework

TAC-D supports districts by helping them identify the root causes of disproportionality in their schools. The root cause process entails training and technical assistance sessions hosted by TAC-D with the school district’s root cause team. The district-level team generally consists of people who serve at different levels including district leadership, building leaders, teachers, pupil personnel staff, families, etc.

The initial step in the process is to develop a framework for understanding how disproportionality relates to the special and general education and school discipline at both national and local levels. Further, it aims to help districts identify the following factors that influence disproportionate outcomes and initiate a process to bring about positive change in student outcomes. This shift takes place in three crucial areas beliefs, policies, and practices (BPPs):

  • Beliefs: the perceptions and the mindsets held by school personnel about themselves, others particularly those who are diverse and the existing educational systems and structures at various levels
  • Policies: the written set of guidelines that create the structure for the processes at various levels and thereby directly impacting the practices
  • Practices: the activities, including both formal and informal which result from the above-discussed beliefs, policies and associated procedure

The interaction between the above components is crucial to dismantling the existing barriers leading to a school environment of fairness, equity, access to opportunities, and justice. TAC-D relies on key interventions that build on school improvement work that center supports at the classroom, school, district and community levels to address disproportionality. It includes the following 1 :

  • School Leadership as a change agent for equity
  • Build Staff Capacity in culturally responsive education
  • Instructional guidance systems are adapted and become relevant to meet the needs of all students particularly struggling students using their assets
  • Student-centered learning climate establishes mechanisms for social and emotional learning growth  
  • Family and Community Engagement plans are aligned with the historical, social and educational needs of families and communities within schools

Data

The first sessions of the root cause analysis process centers on examining district and school level disproportionate discipline and special education data.  Framing the data at the start of root cause informs ‘why’ we are here, and urgency of the work. The ratios discussed in the previous post including composition index, risk ratio and relative risk ratio along with the classification rate help answer critical questions around identification of the issues as a whole and the related “at-risk” students by race/ethnicity, gender, and IEP/Non-IEP status.

Classification rate is the risk of one subgroup to receive Students with Disabilities (SWDs) classification in comparison to the risk of all other students being classified as SWDs.  Teachers and schools that are armed with the tools to enact a culturally responsive pedagogy are capable of effectively addressing the disproportionate representation of racially, culturally, ethnically, and linguistically diverse (RCELD) students in special education programs. 2

District and School Level Data

A look at the District Level Citation Book provides practitioners with an overview around the existing disproportionate practices in their respective districts. The district can be cited for following set of indicators:3

  • Indicator 4A: Significant Discrepancy in the rate of suspensions and expulsions of students with disabilities for greater than 10 days in a school year.
  • Indicator 4B: Significant Discrepancy in the rates of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions of greater than 10 days in a school year of students with disabilities by race and ethnicity.
  • Significant Disproportionality: It is defined as significant disproportionality by race/ethnicity in the incidence, duration, and type of disciplinary actions, including suspensions and expulsions.

The District Level Data Book provides practitioners with the opportunity to explore district-level data to understand disciplinary patterns in their schools. The root cause team initially–collectively– reviews school district data, coupled with policies, procedures, and practices to identify and map the causes of disproportionality, as well as identify related solutions for addressing the inequitable outcomes at the district-level. The data collected is student-level data disaggregated by race/ethnicity, gender, grade, IEP and involves analysis around the district composition, count of incidents, count of students, count of referrals, classifications or suspensions. A look at the intersectional data informs how Black boys and particularly Black boys with disabilities are frequently marginalized.

The School Level Data Book provides educators the opportunity to explore school-level data and to understand disciplinary patterns in their respective school buildings. It helps to identify how and why certain students enjoy privilege whereas other sub-groups of children don’t. Oftentimes, White students are referred for discipline more frequently for objective reasons (e.g., smoking, vandalism).  On the other hand, Black students are referred for discipline for more subjective reasons (e.g., loitering, excessive noise). Even the most serious of the reasons such as threat is dependent on the perception of the staff making the referral.4  Although schools and districts consciously move away from suspensions as disciplinary outcomes, a closer look at the referrals indicates that the students are receiving suspensions for subjective infractions, i.e., the infractions that are left up to the adults’ discretion to determine a suspension.

Problem Solving Process

The above analysis is based on the assumption that if educators identify and address the underlying inequitable historical systems, which lead to disproportionality in respective critical student support areas, then equitable outcomes for all students can be achieved. The understanding of the issues related to race is the key along with the district’s readiness to address the issue. This, when supported by the right set of strategies and policy interventions, can lead to the desired state of equity. The examination of existing policies, procedures, and practices in districts along with the school walkthroughs by TAC-D Project Associates provides substantial qualitative data which supports the identification of systemic gaps that are leading to disproportionate outcomes. A school staff survey is also carried out to understand the existing culture and climate in the district, along with the analysis of Culturally Responsive Education (CRE) instructional practices, practitioners’ belief in the intervention and referral process, along with their perspective on culture and race.

Strategic Plan

Once the root causes are identified, TAC-D creates a multi-year systemic strategic plan with districts to address the inequitable outcomes. The action planning process involves identification of key data points and identifying BPPs that can be tied to them. This leads to creation of incremental goals for the upcoming years based on district specific essential support areas. The strategic plan also involves exploration of effective turnkey opportunities so as to expand the work at all tiers and to ensure the existing human capital of the districts is effectively involved.

The Root Cause analysis process has been an effective solution-based approach which TAC-D has successfully implemented in a number of districts across New York State.

The upcoming and final piece in the series will discuss TAC-D’s Culturally Responsive Education (CRE) process along with the effective team-building strategy used at various levels in districts through the Guardian of Equity (GOE) process.


1 Bryk, A.S. (2010). Organizing Schools for Improvement. Phi Delta Kappan 91(7), pp. 23-30.
2 Griner, A.C., & Stewart, M.L. (2012). Addressing the Achievement Gap and Disproportionality through the Use of Culturally Responsive Teaching Practices. Urban Education 48(4), pp. 585-621.
3 “Special Education.” NYSED.gov, New York State Education Department, Feb. 2013, www.p12.nysed.gov/specialed/spp/2013/ind4.htm.
4 Skiba, R.J, Michael, R.S, Nardo, A.C, & Peterson, R.L. (2002). The Color of Discipline: Sources of Racial and Gender Disproportionality in School Punishment. The Urban Review 34(4), pp. 317-342.


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Jaspreet Kaur is a Senior Research Associate at the Technical Assistance Center on Disproportionality (TAC-D). As an experienced educator, analyst, and program manager, she works to support districts’ understanding of data and enhance system efficiency through customized tools and models.