Underperforming schools are often plagued with a myriad of issues ranging from underfunding and high student mobility to low parent engagement and high levels of personnel turnover. School improvement has been a concern states have grappled with for decades. How can we diagnose fundamental issues that are unique to underperforming schools and school systems? 

How can we develop tailored solutions based on the specific challenges and complexities of underperforming schools? State education agencies, responsible for the improvement of schools and local school systems, need help uncovering the root causes for underperformance and guidance planning for future improvement.

States such as Kentucky and South Carolina have begun to partner with AdvancED to conduct an evidence-based assessment of the root causes of poor performance in schools that for years have been deemed high need. These schools typically do not have a lot of time to turnaround. Many are mandated by state or federal laws to show significant improvement within two to three years. AdvancED trains and deploys teams of experienced educators to conduct a thorough Diagnostic Review of a school’s practices, culture, and conditions, and provides a clear roadmap to stimulate dramatic academic improvement, quickly.

Completing the diagnostic is a critical step on the continuous improvement journey of any institution. The process serves as a foundation for discussions that help pinpoint areas of strength and areas in need of improvement. Just like a doctor uses data and information to diagnose a persistent illness in a patient, AdvancED’s Diagnostic Review tools and services also use data and information (e.g., student performance outcomes, classroom observations and stakeholder feedback) to diagnose the root causes of underperformance in schools.

Schools are often under a lot of pressure to be “cured” quickly. Threats of state takeover, closure, consolidation or principal removal are all potential penalties for continued underperformance.

The consequences for students are even more significant, with many students in failing schools matriculating through school without the tools and skills required to become successful at the next level; many are not prepared to enter a career or complete college. AdvancED Diagnostic Reviews pinpoint a school’s strengths and most pressing issues and provide real solutions to help principals prioritize areas in most critical need of transformative change.

Research has shown that leadership is critical to school transformation. “To date we have not found a single documented case of a school improving its student achievement record in the absence of talented leadership,” according to Leithwood and Seashore-Louis in “Linking Leadership to Student Learning.” Steiner and Hassel (2011), report the two major factors affecting turnaround success are “the characteristics and actions of the turnaround leader, and the support for dramatic change that the leader and staff receive from the district, state, and/or other governing authority.”

The Diagnostic Review process, in some states, includes an accompanying leadership capacity evaluation which assesses the principal’s capacity to lead the transformation needed to turn the school around. The leadership capacity assessment provides information regarding leaders’ strengths and identifies areas where they need support. The findings are evaluated according to the AdvancED Performance Standards, which assess characteristics and actions of high impact leaders in the areas of  leadership, teaching and learning, and resource utilization.

Diagnostic Review teams recognize the vast complexities of leading an underperforming school and the numerous external factors that, if not properly managed, can plague the learning environment.

Dynamics such as poverty, limited parent engagement, and language barriers, as well as high mobility and other challenges are all real issues that can become obstacles to educating children. Despite these difficulties, schools and school systems have the immense responsibility of meeting the academic needs of all children, regardless of their preparedness, family dynamics, or social-economic status. Unfortunately, the data show that many schools are not effectively meeting the needs of their students and blame is sometimes attributed to these external circumstances as an acceptable excuse for poor student performance.

Diagnostic Reviews focus schools on what is most important by defining root causes of underperformance and providing a clear path to improvement. The reviews take what can be an overwhelming and difficult endeavor and turn improvement efforts into a manageable course of action. The first step is to uncover the root cause. Change cannot occur without knowledge of the origin of the problem. Just like a disease cannot be cured without a diagnosis, a school cannot improve without a root cause analysis. AdvancED’s Diagnostic Review offer schools an opportunity to get to the bottom of chronic underperformance and helps institutions create a treatment plan for improvement.


Leithwood, K., & Seashore-Louis, K. (2012). Linking leadership to student learning. San Francisco, CA : Jossey-Bass.

Steiner, L., & Hassel, E. A. (Public Impact). (2011). Using competencies to improve turnaround principal success. Charlottesville: University of Virginia’s Darden/Curry Partnership for Leaders in Education. Retrieved from DardenCurry.org.


Vinice Davis, MBA
Vinice Davis is  the chief operating officer for Purpose Built Schools Atlanta, overseeing the human resources, finance, transportation, and compliance for a system of 1500 students in the Atlanta area. She previously served as the vice president of Improvement Services for AdvancED, where she was responsible for the implementation of the Diagnostic Review process throughout the U.S. Davis also served as the managing director of operations and oversaw the human resources, staff recruitment, school nutrition, school operations, student information, compliance, and risk management departments for a central office supporting more than 2,000 students. Davis helped to support school openings at a non-profit in New York City and worked as a consultant before transitioning into the education sector. Davis has a Bachelor’s of Business Administration from the Goizueta Business School at Emory University in Atlanta, and a Master’s of Business Administration from the Yale School of Management in New Haven, CT.
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.