In summer of 2021, Cognia released new standards for accreditation that go into effect on July 1, 2022. Every five years, Cognia formally reviews and revises accreditation standards to ensure their viability, utility, and applicability to institutional improvement. Cognia’s Performance Standards are the centerpiece of all that we do as advocates for school quality.


Around the turn of the twenty-first century, the focus and process of accreditation shifted from a ten-year evaluation of the accomplishments of an institution’s past decade to a forward-looking process examining what an institution is striving to accomplish in the following five years. Modern accreditation examines the current and future capabilities and capacities of an institution in the context of its mission, purpose, and direction. Cognia’s Performance Standards define how a good school behaves and provides criteria to focus improvement efforts that will lead to growing learners, teachers, and leaders.

This shift means that modern accreditation has become a school improvement process. Every five years, our member institutions formally engage with the Performance Standards to reflect and examine their progress toward their desired future as expressed through its mission, purpose, and strategic direction. Cognia’s purpose-driven, strategic process is the most widely used school improvement process in the world.

We know schools because we are in schools. Cognia supports and serves 36,000 public and non-public institutions in 85 countries. We have walked the halls of every type of school imaginable in every context and geographic location. Through our accreditation process, we have witnessed firsthand the very best schools as well as ineffective schools. The success of a school is not in its name, location, or type. Success is what happens inside a school community in support of every learner. The Performance Standards define a good school and what it can become.

Creating and sustaining a good school requires constant focus and attention to continuously strive for improvement. In what way do our Performance Standards define a good school?

There are four key characteristics that are evident when schools effectively and productively tend to the Performance Standards.

  • First, you should witness leadership focused, dedicated, and committed to learning.
  • Second, you should witness learners engaged productively in the learning experience.
  • Third, you should have evidence that learners are growing in their learning in the programs and curricula provided by the institution.
  • And lastly, you should witness an environment in which the culture is focused on the challenges, joys, and opportunities for learning.
Key Characteristics of a Good School

Leadership for Learning. The ability of a leader to provide leadership for learning is a key attribute of a good school. Leaders who engage in their own learning while tangibly supporting the learning process for learners and teachers have a significant positive impact on the success of others. Leaders also must communicate continuously—with consistency and purpose—the learning expectations for all learners and teachers. Expectations are embedded in the culture of the school, reflected in learners’, teachers’, and leaders’ attitude and behaviors about learning.

Engagement of Learning. A good school ensures that learners are engaged in the learning environment. Learners who are engaged in the learning environment participate with confidence and display agency over their own learning. A good school adopts policies and engages in practices that support all learners being included in the learning process.

Growth in Learning. A good school positively impacts learners throughout their journey of learning. A positive impact is reflected in learners’ readiness to engage in and preparedness for the next transition in their learning. Growth in learning is also reflected in the learner’s ability to meet expectations in knowledge and skill acquisition.

Healthy Culture for Learning. A good school nurtures and sustains a healthy culture for learning. In a healthy culture, learners, parents, and educators feel connected to the purpose and work of the school and behave in alignment with the stated values and norms. The school also demonstrates evidence that reflects the mission, beliefs, and expectations of the school (e.g., student work, physical appearance of the school, participation in school activities, parents’ attendance at school functions).


Standards Updated for Our Times

Every iteration of Performance Standards builds on the prior version to support ongoing improvement. Cognia’s new Performance Standards are designed to evolve the work of institutions in three significant areas.

First, the standards are constructed with a learner-centered focus. Historically, accreditation standards have been institutionally centered, describing the processes and performance of the institution. The new standards focus on the learner, not on the institution, and on how all the processes and practices serve to support and ensure the learner’s journey.

Additionally, the new standards emphasize the importance and impact of ensuring equity for every learner as well as the expectation that all learners, regardless of their circumstance, are included in the learning process. Equity in learning requires that institutions define the needs of each learner and what it will take for the learner to succeed in their educational journey. The institution must ensure that each learner has access to effective teaching, the entire school’s curriculum and programming, and additional support services, when needed. The institution also must ensure that the school’s curriculum and programming is inclusive of every learner. No learner should be excluded based on their background or demographic footprint. Fundamental to ensuring an equitable and inclusive learning environment for every learner is that the institution demonstrates through actions its belief that every learner can succeed in their educational.

Third, the standards describe aspects of learner well-being, taking the whole learner into account. To respond to the complex issues facing learners today, schooling must increasingly address a broad range of learners’ needs. Learning depends on more than skilled instruction—a good school addresses multiple aspects of learners’ circumstances and environment, so that every learner can grow.

Supporting Continuous Improvement

Institutions use the Performance Standards as the basis and focus for all aspects of their continuous improvement journeys and gather data and insights to support their efforts with additional resources and tools. For example, a previous iteration of the standards highlighted the importance and impact of learner engagement. To strengthen engagement, institutions in our network employ research-based tools and resources, including eleot® (Effective Learning Environments Observation Tool®), an instrument to consistently measure and improve learning engagement; and surveys to gauge school climate and culture.

New developments will help institutions grow learners, teachers, and leaders toward expectations defined in the Performance Standards. Member institutions will be able to use these tools to meet the Performance Standards for accreditation, and to guide their ongoing improvement efforts. Members of our network can use Cognia’s new Teacher Observation Tool, which helps teachers focus on learner-centric instruction, and additional tools under development include professional learning and community-building resources for growth and improvement.

As improvement experts, Cognia is dedicated to helping institutions grow learners, teachers, and leaders. The new Performance Standards shape and define the core of our expertise in supporting institutions in their improvement efforts. For more information about Cognia’s Performance Standards, accreditation, and certification visit us online at Cognia.org.

Mark A. Elgart, Ed.D.
Dr. Mark A. Elgart has served as president and CEO of Cognia since 2002. Under his leadership Cognia was established, following the merger of AdvancED and Measured Progress, to bridge the gap between school evaluation and student assessment.  Cognia serves as the trusted partner with over 36,000 institutions in 85 countries to advance learning for 25 million students.  Elgart has a long, distinguished career of 40 years as an educational leader including time as a math and physics teacher, school principal, and chief executive leading a global, education non-profit.  He is annually recognized, both locally and internationally, as an influential leader in education due to his impact on education policy and the work of schools.  He is an internationally recognized speaker on education and frequent author on educational issues including recent whitepapers on federal policy and school improvement.  In education, Elgart is widely viewed as the foremost authority on school improvement and education quality.  Elgart earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Mathematics from Springfield College, Master’s Degree in Educational Administration from Westfield State College, and Doctorate in Education in Leadership in Schooling from the University of Massachusetts.