Mar 28, 2022

Addressing the Problem with Problems: How Education Agencies Develop Well-Defined Problem Statements for Educational Improvement

Chris Brandt
Juan D'Brot
Overhead view of wooden table with a puzzle. Hands of professionals circle the puzzle, each holding a missing piece.

“You can’t solve a problem until you are asking the right questions.” – Albert Einstein


The Region 5 Comprehensive Center along with state leaders in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia has been working to develop and implement Networked Improvement Communities (NIC) to inform improvement initiatives with an organized approach. This blog provides an overview of Step 3 in the 8-step NIC process, developing a well-specified problem statement. You may also access ready-made facilitator resources on the NIC website.

Education policy and practice is riddled with complex problems that are void of any clear or simple solution. Take the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) as an example. NCLB attempted to address some long-standing educational challenges, and while improving transparency and reporting, it brought with it many unintended consequences. In hindsight, NCLB can be used as an opportunity to help us identify problems more effectively.

What can NCLB teach us about the problem with identifying problems?

NCLB offers important lessons about problem solving in education. First, the biggest problems are highly complex and layered. They emerge from systems in which root causes are deeply entrenched, hidden, and evasive.

Second, problems are like shape-shifting nesting dolls; as soon as one problem is cracked, a new problem emerges, and each one looks very different depending on who you ask. For example, a chief finance officer and a chief academic officer may have very different perceptions about the impact of over-testing.

Third, solutions to complex problems will almost certainly produce new problems. Problem solving can be a bit of a balancing act as solving one problem can create new problems for different groups. When silver-bullet solutions are highly unlikely and concessions are inevitable, striving for a better class of problems is a worthy alternative.

How can education agencies construct clear and well-defined problem statements?

Given the complex nature of problems in education, how can state and local education agencies identify the right problem to solve? The table below describes six key principles to guide effective problem identification and offers brief descriptions and considerations of how to apply them.

Table describing the steps and considerations involved in problem solving.

Identifying problem statements can be time-consuming and painstaking. But getting the problem right is well worth the time. Creating an effective problem identification process improves an organization’s odds for success. Moreover, it can also crystallize an organization’s vision, break down siloes, build bridges among stakeholders, and create organizational conditions for long-term and sustainable growth.

For more information and support, contact the Region 5 Comprehensive Center.