What problem are you trying to solve?

NPR reports that Virginia's new set of education goals are higher for white and Asian kids than for blacks, Latinos and students with disabilities. According to the story, Virginia's state Board of Education

looked at students' test scores in reading and math and then proposed new passing rates. In math it set an acceptable passing rate at 82 percent for Asian students, 68 percent for whites, 52 percent for Latinos, 45 percent for blacks and 33 percent for kids with disabilities.

Winsome Sears, one of the Board members, explained the new goals this way:

"So why do we have these different subgroups? Because we're starting with black children where they are. We can't start them at the 82 percentile because they're not there. The Asian students are there. And so the real question is why aren't black students starting at the 82 percentile? Why? Why are they not there? That's the problem the board wants to solve."

Perhaps it's because I've spent much of the last week with a client working through A3 thinking and root cause problem solving, but the inanity of the Board of Education's decision really struck me. I mean, what problem are they trying to solve? No offense, Mr. Sears, but how exactly does lowering the bar to 45% help you fix the problem of black kids missing the 82nd percentile?

If they really want to improve educational performance, lowering the standards hardly seems like the right countermeasure. That's like lowering food safety standards and claiming that the food is now safe because only 1 out of 1000 hamburgers are tainted with salmonella instead of 1 out of 100. Or saying that a car has achieve the highest quality rating because it didn't exceed the 25 "allowable" defects.

It seems to me that the Board of Education is solving an entirely different problem: how to avoid getting penalized for failing to meet the academic goals of No Child Left Behind. If that's the case, then this countermeasure -- changing the standards -- is wonderfully effective.

Now, you can make a good argument that No Child Left Behind is a heavy-handed, poorly designed, ineffective tool for raising academic achievement. (And as a former teacher, I'm more than happy to make that argument.) However, if Winsome Sears and the rest of the Board want to solve the problem of why black kids aren't starting at the 82nd percentile, it's difficult to see how re-jiggering the standards is going to help.

The truth is that most problems have multiple root causes and require a suite of countermeasures to improve the situation. Developing those countermeasures requires a deep understanding of the true problem, and a great deal of time, effort, (and possibly) money. It's so much easier to just change the standards.

For me, one of the great powers of an A3 analysis is that the format makes it easy to read your argument "backwards." Because the analysis is laid out on one page, you can look at the proposed countermeasures, see whether they address the root causes you've identified, and decide whether they really help you close the gap you've identified in the problem statement. The Virginia Board of Education decision clearly fails that test:

Lower academic standards -> Help under-achieving kids -> Get all kids to 82nd percentile. I'm missing the logic.

And my guess is that if you look at many of the countermeasures your company puts into place, you'll see similar gaps.