Changing the trajectory of a school’s success Is a complex process. When students are not meeting their potential, can you pinpoint the root causes for underperformance? Does the leadership staff have the expertise and capacity to lead schools or systems in necessary improvements? How can state education agencies best address underperformance for schools identified for targeted support and improvement (TSI) or comprehensive support and improvement (CSI) across the state?

The first step to drive intensive school improvement and school turnaround is to conduct an in-depth Diagnostic Review. Whether for schools needing targeted or comprehensive support or to address pockets of underperformance within the education ecosystem, the Diagnostic Review process identifies pathways for improvement through an in-depth review and analysis of the factors that impact teaching and learning and the capacity for leading change. Cognia’s Diagnostic Review process engages leadership teams in analysis and problem solving that focuses on root causes, enabling leaders to activate their vision for improvement and achieve measurable results.

Cognia’s Diagnostic Review process engages leadership teams in analysis and problem solving that focuses on root causes, enabling leaders to activate their vision for improvement and achieve measurable results.

As experts in school quality and continuous improvement, Cognia not only evaluates where schools are now, but also helps them to plan their improvement journey in the future—against research-backed standards for quality teaching and learning.

Seeing value in the accreditation engagement review process, schools began asking us to dig deeper to help them address their improvement goals and turnaround challenges. Ten years ago, in response to a growing need, Cognia began building a process to help schools and districts, that want external accountability partners, to collect and analyze multiple sources of data to determine improvement priorities that guide the school’s or district’s next steps. These improvement priorities are developed to provide the institution with a pathway to improve organizational effectiveness and instructional capacity and thereby to significantly increase student learning.

We partnered with individual schools, school systems, and state departments of education to conduct Diagnostic Reviews in chronically underperforming schools and built capacity for institutions eager to engage in school or district turnaround. Diagnostic Review teams evaluate schools and districts in need of intensive support and determine steps for improvement to move students out of underperformance. Each state, system, and school has different areas of need, but a common goal is to support students and educators in the specific ways they need most to kick-start, propel, and sustain student improvement.

Successful turnaround work involves a partnership with colleagues at the state, system, and building level—to problem solve, implement solutions that address specific needs, and track progress.

Successful turnaround work involves a partnership with colleagues at the state, system, and building level—to problem solve, implement solutions that address specific needs, and track progress. Our Diagnostic Review teams consist of turnaround experts and peer educators who work in schools, side-by-side with education leaders to establish priorities and identify pathways for improvement.

Root Cause Analysis

When Dr. Margaret Gilmore became superintendent in 2018, Allendale County Schools, which serves 1,100 students in Fairfax, South Carolina, had been taken over by the South Carolina Department of Education. All the district’s schools were in the bottom five percent of the state’s schools in terms of performance and required intervention. District leaders worked with Cognia to conduct a root-cause analysis of Allendale’s mission and vision, instructional programs, resources and supports, and strategic goals and objectives. Cognia assembled a team of education specialists and conducted a Diagnostic Review.

The Diagnostic Review process included three days on campus, visiting classrooms, conducting eleot® (Effective Learning Environments Observation Tool®) observations, and interviewing stakeholders and students. From the data gathered, Allendale’s leaders had improvement priorities to focus their efforts. District leaders used the priorities to implement a strategic plan of action and timelines to achieve the goals set for each school. With dedication to these priorities and the creation of initiatives like “The Allendale Six” – a set of processes put in place to ensure all teachers are engaging in practices like bell-to-bell instruction, conducting formative assessment activities, and providing students with feedback in an active learning environment, Dr. Gilmore and her team started to see progress.

Today, none of the district’s schools is on the bottom five percent list and the district exited state management in the 2022-2023 school year. After implementing Cognia’s improvement priorities, Allendale’s graduation rose to 87.3%—the highest it had been in the previous 10 —surpassing the state’s graduation rate. Plus, with plans to become an early-college high school, Fairfax High School had many students in dual-enrollment courses, sent more graduates to college, and received the highest scholarship amount ever in 2019–2020.

“Since 2019, we’ve been working with this framework to address the priorities,” says Dr. Gilmore. “We put the priorities on our faculty meeting agendas and our principal meeting agendas to ensure that each one is implemented with fidelity. We take them seriously.”

Intensive School Improvement and School Turnaround

A Cognia Diagnostic Review is a key lever in identifying and articulating the root causes of underperformance. Whether to address district-identified improvement initiatives or as a part of a comprehensive turnaround effort, the Diagnostic Review process is a powerful resource to focus improvement efforts and address performance.

Jefferson County Schools in Birmingham; Alabama, Memphis-Shelby County Schools in Tennessee; and Fayette County Schools in Tennessee are actively engaged in holistic intensive school improvement and turnaround work. Jefferson County Schools has been Cognia Systems Accredited since 2009. In 2021, the district sought Cognia’s partnership to strengthen its district-level strategic plan, which has a goal of impacting growth by developing an integrated system of support for intensive school improvement and differentiating supports for all its schools.

The Cognia Diagnostic Review process provided an organic external lens of accountability, in which our district needed to understand our current reality, how we got there, and next steps and solutions.


Dr. Orletta Rush, Deputy Superintendent of Jefferson County Schools.

“The Cognia Diagnostic Review process provided an organic external lens of accountability, in which our district needed to understand our current reality, how we got there, and next steps and solutions,” said Dr. Orletta Rush, Deputy Superintendent of Jefferson County Schools. Knowing answers to these questions was essential in the district moving forward with success, not only at the school level, but ultimately with how they strategically make decisions in providing support for schools. “Cognia provided the experience needed to support our schools and district and provided that ‘one-stop shop’ for connecting the pieces of work that have already been implemented and initiated.”

Jefferson County Schools participate in the Diagnostic Review process to identify strengths and areas for targeted improvement. Following the Diagnostic Review, the school leaders engage in individualized leadership coaching support to use the findings of the review to guide conversations and decisions for immediate actions and adjustments for the School Improvement Plan and to identify needs for professional learning opportunities through the partnership or district. Under the partnership with Cognia, Jefferson County Schools plans to continue adding cohorts of five schools per year to participate in this holistic solution using Cognia’s tools and resources to drive strategic plans aligned with the district and state accountability model.

The schools have also been working on school culture and building teacher agency using the MyVoice platform with ongoing coaching support as they implement and use the data they are gathering to build solutions to positively impact culture. As the partnership continues, we work with school and district leaders to identify next steps based on their identified goals and needs.

Now, system leaders are exploring how to build their leadership capacity by using Cognia Learning Community Learning labs for targeted needs, eleot calibration walks, and eleot focused professional learning opportunities, and engagement in the Leadership Circle. We build in feedback loops and hosted Voice of the Client webinars to highlight Jefferson County successes featuring a panel discussion with the deputy superintendent and three principals who shared their experiences.

Read success stories from schools that have overcome challenges and succeeded in turning around school performance.

Learn more about Cognia’s support for school improvement and school turnaround work at


Indicators of Success

Since 2012, Cognia has completed nearly 400 Diagnostic Reviews through partnerships in 10 different states. In addition, 72 Progress Monitoring Reviews have been conducted through partnerships supporting schools in South Carolina and Montana. Of the 69 identified schools participating in the Diagnostic Review Process in South Carolina between Spring 2016 and Spring 2021, 47 exited from CSI status in 2022. In Kentucky, between 2012-2021, 44 of the 81 identified schools exited from CSI status in 2022.


This year marks the 10th school year that we have been informing school turnaround efforts with Diagnostic Reviews through an in-depth root cause analysis of underperformance for schools needing targeted and comprehensive support and improvement. Teams of experts and peers collaborate to address challenges, measure improvement, and help schools achieve their vision for success. Intensive school improvement and turnaround work is challenging, the reasons for underperformance are varied and progress is never fast enough.

Through the systemic approach of Diagnostic Reviews, strengths and areas of concern are articulated and improvement priorities with action steps are tailored to create a customized gateway to continuous improvement where pathways for success emerge.

Maria Sells, Ph.D.
Maria Sells, Ph.D., is senior vice president of Improvement Services for Cognia where she leads, manages, monitors, supports, and ensures the quality of the development and delivery of solutions providing holistic support to build capacity for the implementation of cohesive school, district, and state education agency continuous improvement initiatives.  She works with Cognia's regional vice presidents and state directors, for all intensive support and improvement services (e.g., Diagnostic Reviews, Leadership Assessments, Student Engagement Reviews, Focused Engagement Reviews, and Progress Monitoring Reviews). Dr. Sells has more than twenty-five years of experience focusing on assisting schools and districts to achieve excellence through the development and implementation of successful turnaround initiatives, building leadership capacity, targeted professional development, data-driven decision making, and curriculum, instruction, and assessment alignment. Her experiences as a superintendent, assistant superintendent, principal and director of special education span elementary, middle, and high school levels in both rural and urban settings. Dr. Sells has extensive experience as a mentor and leadership coach for beginning administrators through the Indiana Department of Education and for practicing administrators through the Indiana Principal Leadership Institute. In addition, she is an adjunct professor in the School of Education Leadership at Indiana Wesleyan University where she teaches courses covering curriculum development, action research, school culture, resource management, ethical leadership, collaborative visioning, instructional leadership, principal preparation internships, and participates on doctoral candidate committees. She completed her Ph.D. in Education Administration at Indiana State University and holds administrative licensure for Superintendent, Elementary Supervision, Secondary Supervision, and Director of Special Education.
Janet Hurt, Ph.D.
Janet Hurt, Ph.D., is the director of Improvement Services for AdvancED. In this role, Dr. Hurt provides leadership and support for all Intensive Support and Improvement services. Prior to joining AdvancED, Dr. Hurt served in a variety of roles, including associate professor, associate superintendent, assistant superintendent, principal, assistant principal, guidance counselor, teacher, scholastic audit team leader and project manager for a $41,000,000 Race to the Top grant. She has won several awards including the Tom Vest Professional Development award from the Kentucky Association of School Administrators and Outstanding Kentucky Guidance Program award. Dr. Hurt has written several articles and a book. She also has served as a keynote speaker, professional development facilitator and invited guest speaker across the U.S. and internationally in cities such as Oxford, England and Beijing, China.