Cluster Grouping of Gifted Students: How To Provide
Full-Time Services on a Part-Time Budget.
by Winebrenner, Susan - Devlin, Barbara
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO PLACE GIFTED STUDENTS IN CLUSTER GROUPS?
A group of five to eight identified gifted students, usually those in
the top 5% of ability in the grade level population, are "clustered" in
the classroom of one teacher who has training in how to teach exceptionally
capable students. The other students in that class are of mixed ability.
If there are more than eight to ten gifted students, two or more clusters
should be formed.
ISN'T CLUSTER GROUPING THE SAME AS TRACKING?
No. In a tracking system, all students are grouped by ability for much
of the school day, and students tend to remain in the same track throughout
their school experience. Gifted students benefit from learning together,
and need to be placed with similar students in their areas of strength
(Hoover, et al., 1993; Kulik & Kulik, 1990; Rogers, 1993). Cluster
grouping of gifted students allows them to learn together, while avoiding
permanent grouping arrangements for students of other ability levels.
WHY SHOULD GIFTED STUDENTS BE PLACED IN A CLUSTER GROUP INSTEAD OF
BEING ASSIGNED EVENLY TO ALL CLASSES?
When teachers try to meet the diverse learning needs of all students,
it becomes extremely difficult to provide adequately for everyone. Often,
the highest ability students are expected to "make it on their own." When
a teacher has several gifted students, taking the time to make appropriate
provisions for them seems more realistic. Furthermore, gifted students
can better understand and accept their learning differences if there are
others just like them in the class. Finally, scheduling out-of-class activities
is easier when the resource teacher has only one cluster teacher's schedule
to work with.
WHAT ARE THE LEARNING NEEDS OF GIFTED STUDENTS?
Since these students have previously mastered many of the concepts they
are expected to "learn" in a given class, a huge part of their school time
may be wasted. They need exactly what all other students need: consistent
opportunity to learn new material and to develop the behaviors that allow
them to cope with the challenge and struggle of new learning. It is very
difficult for such students to have those needs met in heterogeneous classes.
ISN'T GIFTED EDUCATION ELITIST?
Gifted students need consistent opportunities to learn at their challenge
level--just as all students do. It is inequitable to prevent gifted students
from being challenged by trying to apply one level of difficulty for all
students in mixed-ability classes. When teachers can provide opportunities
for all students, including those who are gifted, to be challenged by rigorous
curriculum, there is nothing elitist about the situation.
DON'T WE NEED GIFTED STUDENTS IN ALL CLASSES SO THEY CAN HELP OTHERS LEARN THROUGH COOPERATIVE LEARNING, PEER TUTORING, AND OTHER COLLABORATIVE MODELS?
When gifted students are placed in mixed-ability groups for cooperative
learning, they frequently become tutors. Other students in these groups
may rely on the gifted to do most of the work and may actually learn less
than when the gifted students are not in their groups. When gifted students
work in their own cooperative learning groups from time to time on appropriately
challenging tasks, they are more likely to develop positive attitudes about
cooperative learning. At the same time, other students learn to become
more active learners because they are not able to rely so heavily on the
gifted students. When the learning task focuses on content some students
already know, those students should be learning how to cooperate in their
own groups on extension tasks that are difficult enough to require cooperation.
When the cooperative task is open-ended and requires critical or divergent
thinking, it is acceptable to include the gifted students in heterogeneous
cooperative learning groups.
IF GIFTED STUDENTS ARE NOT PLACED IN SOME CLASSES, WON'T THOSE CLASSES LACK POSITIVE ROLE MODELS FOR ACADEMIC AND SOCIAL
Research on role modeling (Schunk, 1987) indicates that to be effective,
role models cannot be drastically discrepant in ability from those who
would be motivated by them. Teachers overwhelmingly report that new leadership
"rises to the top" in the non-cluster classes. There are many students,
other than identified gifted students, who welcome opportunities to become
the new leaders in groups that no longer include the top 5% of a grade
level group. This issue becomes a problem only when more than 5 to 10%
of students are clustered. As classes are formed, be sure the classes without
clusters of gifted students include several highly capable students.
HOW DOES THE CLUSTER GROUPING CONCEPT FIT IN WITH THE INCLUSION MODELS THAT INTEGRATE STUDENTS WITH EXCEPTIONAL EDUCATIONAL
NEEDS INTO REGULAR CLASSES?
The Inclusion model, in which students with exceptional learning needs
are integrated into regular classrooms, is compatible with the concept
of cluster grouping of gifted students, since both groups have exceptional
educational needs. The practice of cluster grouping allows educators to
come much closer to providing better educational services for groups of
students with similar exceptional learning needs. In non-cluster classrooms,
teachers report they are able to pay more attention to the special learning
needs of those for whom learning may be more difficult. Some schools choose
to avoid placing students with significant learning difficulties in the
same class that has the cluster group of gifted students. A particular
class may have a cluster of gifted students and a cluster of special education
students as long as more than one adult is sharing the teaching responsibilities.
WON'T THE PRESENCE OF THE CLUSTERED GIFTED STUDENTS INHIBIT THE PERFORMANCE
OF THE OTHER STUDENTS IN THAT CLASS, HAVING A NEGATIVE EFFECT ON THEIR
When the cluster group is kept to a manageable size, many cluster teachers
report that there is general improvement in achievement for the entire
class. This suggests the exciting possibility that when teachers learn
how to provide what gifted students need, they also learn to offer modified
versions of the same opportunities to the entire class, thus raising the
level of learning for all students, including those who are gifted. The
positive effects of the cluster grouping practice may be shared with all
students over several years by rotating the cluster teacher assignment
among teachers who have had gifted education training and by rotating the
other students so all students eventually have a chance to be in the same
class with a cluster group.
HOW SHOULD STUDENTS BE IDENTIFIED FOR THE CLUSTER GROUP?
If there will be one cluster, its highly capable students should be
those who have demonstrated that they will need curriculum that exceeds
grade level parameters. Traditional measures, such as standardized tests
may also be used, but not as the sole criteria. If there will be more than
one cluster, those highly capable in specific subjects might be grouped
together in separate clusters. Profoundly gifted students should always
be grouped together, since there will rarely be more than two such students
in any grade level. Identification should be conducted each spring with
the help of someone with training in gifted education.
WHAT SPECIFIC SKILLS ARE NEEDED BY CLUSTER TEACHERS?
Since gifted students are as far removed from the "norm" as are students
with significant learning difficulties, it is necessary for teachers to
have special training in how to teach children of exceptionally high ability.
Cluster teachers should know how to:
* recognize and nurture behaviors usually demonstrated by gifted students;
* create conditions in which all students will be stretched to learn;
* allow students to demonstrate and get credit for previous mastery
* provide opportunities for faster pacing of new material;
* incorporate students' passionate interests into their independent
* facilitate sophisticated research investigations;
* provide flexible grouping opportunities for the entire class.
SHOULD THE CLUSTER GROUPING MODEL REPLACE OUT-OF-CLASS ENRICHMENT
PROGRAMS FOR GIFTED STUDENTS?
No. Cluster grouping provides an effective complement to any gifted
education program. Gifted students need time to be together when they can
just "be themselves." The resource teacher might also provide assistance
to all classroom teachers in their attempts to differentiate the curriculum
for students who need it. As a matter of fact, this resource person is
being called a "Schoolwide Enrichment Specialist" in many schools instead
of a "Gifted Program Coordinator" in recognition of the fact that so many
students can benefit from "enriching" learning opportunities.
IS CLUSTERING FEASIBLE ONLY IN ELEMENTARY SCHOOLS?
No. Cluster grouping may be used at all grade levels and in all subject
areas. Gifted students may be clustered in one section of any heterogeneous
class, especially when there are not enough students to form an advanced
section for a particular subject. Cluster grouping is also a welcome option
in rural settings, or wherever small numbers of gifted students make appropriate
accommodations difficult. Keep in mind, however, if your school has enough
gifted students for separate sections in which curriculum is accelerated,
such sections should be maintained. Many middle schools have quietly returned
to the practice of offering such sections. Placement in cluster groups
is gained by demonstrating that one needs a differentiated curriculum--not
by proving one is "gifted."
HOW ARE RECORDS KEPT OF THE PROGRESS MADE BY STUDENTS IN CLUSTER
Differentiated Educational Plans (DEP) should be maintained for gifted
students and filed with their other ongoing records. In some schools, teachers
develop a DEP for the cluster group, rather than for individual students.
These plans briefly describe the modifications that are planned for the
group and should be shared with parents regularly.
WHAT ARE THE ADVANTAGES OF CLUSTER GROUPING?
Gifted students feel more comfortable when there are other students
just like them in the class. They are more likely to choose more challenging
tasks when other students will also be eligible. Teachers no longer have
to deal with the strain of trying to meet the needs of just one precocious
student in a class. The school is able to provide a full-time, cost-effective
program for gifted students, since their learning needs are being met every
WHAT ARE THE DISADVANTAGES OF CLUSTER GROUPING?
There may be pressure from parents to have their children placed in
a cluster classroom, even if they are not in the actual cluster group.
Gifted students may move into the district during the school year and not
be able to be placed in the cluster classroom. These situations may be
* providing training for all staff in compacting and differentiation
so parents can expect those opportunities in all classes;
* requiring parents to provide written documentation of their child's
need for curriculum differentiation instead of requesting the placement
* rotating the cluster teacher assignment every two years among teachers
who have had appropriate training so parents understand that many teachers
are capable of teaching gifted students;
* rotating other students into cluster classrooms over several years.
Another disadvantage might arise if the cluster teachers are not expected
to consistently compact and differentiate the curriculum. Their supervisor
must expect them to maintain the integrity of the program, and must provide
the needed support by facilitating regular meetings of cluster teachers,
and by providing time for the enrichment specialist to assist the cluster
There is an alarming trend in many places to eliminate gifted education
programs in the mistaken belief that all students are best served in heterogeneous
learning environments. Educators have been bombarded with research that
makes it appear that there is no benefit to ability grouping for any students.
The work of Allan (1991), Feldhusen (1989), Fiedler (1993), Kulik and Kulik
(1990), Rogers (1993) and others clearly documents the benefits of keeping
gifted students together in their areas of greatest strength for at least
part of the school day. It appears that average and below average students
have much to gain from heterogeneous grouping, but we must not sacrifice
gifted students' needs in our attempts to find the best grouping practices
for all students.
If we do not allow cluster groups to be formed, gifted students may
find their achievement and learning motivation waning in a relatively short
period of time. Parents of gifted students may choose to enroll their children
in alternative programs, such as home schooling or charter schools. The
practice of cluster grouping represents a mindful way to make sure gifted
students continue to receive a quality education at the same time as schools
work to improve learning opportunities for all students.
Allan, S. (March, 1991). Ability grouping research reviews: What do
they say about grouping and the gifted? Educational Leadership, 48(6) 60-65.
Feldhusen, J. (March, 1989). Synthesis of research on gifted youth.
Educational Leadership, 46(6) 6-11.
Fiedler, E., Lange, R., & Winebrenner, S. (Sept. 1993). In search
of reality" Unraveling the myths about tracking, ability grouping, and
the gifted. Roeper Review, 16(1) 4-7.
Hoover, S., Sayler, M., and Feldhusen, J. (Sept. 1993). Cluster grouping
of gifted students at the elementary level. Roeper Review, 16(1), 13-15.
Kulik, J. A. & Kulik, C-L. C. (1990). Ability grouping and gifted
students. In N. Colangelo and G. Davis, "Handbook of Gifted Education."
Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Rogers, K. (Sept. 1993). Grouping the gifted and talented. Roeper Review,
Schunk, D. H. (1987). Peer models and children's behavioral change.
Review of Educational Research, 57, 149-174.