Archived Information

Tools for Schools - April 1998

Consensus Standards Model

What Is It?

The Consensus Standards Model is a school reform project of the Center for Research on Education, Diversity, and Excellence, University of California, Santa Cruz. The model is based on five standards of effective pedagogy for at-risk students. The standards reflect the intentions of the standards-based reform movement to ensure high expectations for all students and those principles of teaching and learning on which educators, researchers, and program developers across theoretical domains agree. They represent consensus in educational research and theory about maximizing teaching and learning for all students, but especially those at risk due to limited-English proficiency, cultural diversity, poverty, race, or geography.

The Center's research continues to refine and extend these standards, but current practice can benefit by regular enactment of the following standards of effective pedagogy: joint productive activity, language development, contextualization, cognitive complexity, and instructional conversation. These consensus standards are entirely consistent with natural teaching and learning in all informal community, cultural, productive, and familial settings. However, schools traditionally have not put these standards into practice. Because of the broad similarity between school, family, and community practices of majority-culture students, schools could rely on family and community members to provide the activity, the conversation, the language development, and the shared context necessary for learning. This is no longer true in our culturally and linguistically diverse nation. Schools must now provide the common experience, activity, language, and conversation that learners require, both for individual development and the development of a common, shared, and mutually endorsed community.

Why Did It Get Started?

This model began as an effort to improve instruction and achievement in schools serving cultural- and linguistic-minority students. Although innovative school reform programs typically concentrate on specific cultural, linguistic, or ethnic populations and on specific communities, general recommendations for improvement can be made for which there exists a great deal of consensus among educators. Nonetheless, these general recommendations for practice must be enacted in specific local contexts and, therefore, adapted to local conditions.

How Does It Work?

The model is based upon five standards of effective pedagogy:

Joint Productive Activity -- facilitate learning through joint productive activity among teachers and students;
Language Development -- develop competence in the language and literacy of instruction;
Contextualization -- contextualize teaching and curriculum in the experiences and skills of home and community;
Cognitive Complexity -- challenge students toward cognitive complexity; and
Instructional Conversation -- engage students through dialogue, especially the instructional conversation.

We have developed a reliable process for transforming any classroom from a unitary organization characterized by teaching through a recitation script, into a more differentiated social organization containing varied, simultaneous, related, and appropriate activity settings. Effective teaching can only occur in sound social organization. Knowledge is constructed through activity and socially constructed through conversation, and therefore is determined by the social organization of teaching and learning. It is crucial that schools design and implement activity settings that are varied, appropriate to the given task and students, and meaningfully interrelated.

Classrooms must be reconceptualized into a vision that includes many activities, all productive and simultaneous. To enable enactment of the five generic standards, in particular joint productive activity with teacher and peers and opportunities for the instructional conversation, it follows that classrooms must employ multiple, simultaneous, and diversified activity settings. The instructional conversation cannot take place in whole-class settings of 30 students, or even of 15. If there are small groups of four to seven students engaged in conversation with the teacher, the balance of the students must be engaged productively in independent group settings. If there is to be genuine joint activity, it cannot involve 30 students doing the same thing; rather, even when there is a joint class-wide project (for example, a school newspaper to be written), there must be smaller activity settings, differentiated and simultaneous to allow true joint participation with others. Through instructional conversation and working on a joint product with four to seven students, the teacher is effectively able to maintain accurate assessments and provide assistance responsively.

What Are The Costs?

Operating schools and classrooms according to this model entails no extra cost. The costs of training and staff development vary with the methods and intensity of the model.

How Is The Model Implemented In A School?

The primary means for reform is through teacher professional development and a professional development portfolio and evaluation process. Various activities for professional development, described below, have been employed and are available from the Center for Research on Education, Diversity, and Excellence.

What Is The Evidence That The Model Is Successful?

There are a wide variety of evaluation studies that have examined the effects on student performance when teachers use each of the standards separately. Evaluation of the fully organized five-standards enacted version is currently under way at the Zuni Middle School, Zuni, New Mexico.

Where Can I See It?

The CD-ROM Teaching Alive! is available through the Center for Research on Education, Diversity, and Excellence for use by teachers, teacher educators, school administrators, and researchers. A schoolwide application can be seen in a school reform program at Zuni Middle School, Zuni, New Mexico. Visits are available only by advance arrangement.

Whom Do I Contact?

Roland Tharp, Director
Center for Research on Education, Diversity, and Excellence
1156 High Street
Santa Cruz, California 95064
Telephone: 408-459-3500; Fax: 408-459-3502
E-mail:; Web site:

The Research Base

Thorough reading of the literature in research, development, and evaluation of educational programs for all cultural and social groups over a long period of time and across a wide range of settings has resulted in the extraction of five standards of effective pedagogy. Remarkable similarities are present in the research-based recommendations, which suggests that effective instruction for all groups includes these same "generic" elements because they make school success possible for all groups.

The Five Standards for Effective Pedagogy were evaluated, enacted, and tested by university researchers and 15 volunteer teachers in Zuni, New Mexico, middle and high school classrooms. Teachers and researchers co-constructed means for enacting the standards. From videotapes of these classrooms, a library was created that includes excellent and varied enactments of the standards.

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