Cluster Grouping of Gifted Students: How To Provide
Full-Time Services on a Part-Time Budget. ERIC Digest.
by Winebrenner, Susan - Devlin, Barbara
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.
However, the work of many researchers (Allan, 1991; Feldhusen, 1989; Fiedler,
Lange, & Winebrenner, 1993; Kulik and Kulik, 1990; Rogers, 1993) clearly
documents the benefits of keeping gifted students together in their areas
of greatest strength for at least part of the school day. It also appears
that all students, including average and below average students, may benefit
when gifted students are placed in their own cluster (Gentry, 1999).
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO PLACE GIFTED STUDENTS IN CLUSTER GROUPS?
A group of three to six identified gifted students, usually those in
the top 5% of ability in the grade level population, are clustered in a
mixed-ability classroom. The teacher has had training in how to teach exceptionally
capable students. If there are more than six gifted students, two or more
clusters could 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, Sayler, & Feldhusen, 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
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
with which to work.
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
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. Research indicates
that a particular structure of cluster grouping raises everyone's achievement
level (Gentry, 1999). When class placements are made, students should be
sorted into 5 groups: I, II, III, IV, V. One class, taught by a teacher
with some gifted education training, should be assigned the cluster group
of gifted students (group I) and some students from groups II to IV. All
other classes should include a range of students from groups II through
V. This method creates a more narrow range of student achievement levels,
allowing the teacher to focus instructional activities. It is important
to place some group II students in each non-cluster class, even if it means
placing no group II students in the gifted cluster class.
WON'T THE CREATION OF A CLUSTER GROUP ROB THE OTHER CLASSES OF ACADEMIC
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. When gifted students are grouped in their own
cluster, they have the benefit of working with one another and new leadership
emerges in the other non-cluster classes. As classes are formed, be sure
the classes without clusters of gifted students include several highly
capable students. Teachers and administrators can expect measurable achievement
gains across all classes.
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 ACHIEVEMENT?
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 GIFTED STUDENTS BE IDENTIFIED FOR THE CLUSTER GROUP?
Placement in cluster groups is gained by demonstrating that one needs
a differentiated curriculum-not by proving one is "gifted." 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
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 a learning environment in which all students will be stretched
* 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 SCHOOL?
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.
HOW ARE RECORDS KEPT OF THE PROGRESS MADE BY STUDENTS
IN CLUSTER GROUPS?
Differentiated Educational Plans (DEPs) 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. Teachers are also much more likely to provide appropriate
learning opportunities if more than one student will benefit. The school
is able to provide a full-time, cost-effective program for gifted students,
since their learning needs are being met every day.
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 may
not be able to be placed in the cluster classroom. These situations may
be handled by:
* 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 2 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
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 schools
work to improve learning opportunities for all students.
Allan, S. (1991). Ability grouping research reviews: What do they say
about grouping and the gifted? Educational Leadership, 48(6), 60-65.
Feldhusen, J. (1989). Synthesis of research on gifted youth. Educational
Leadership, 46(6), 6-11.
Fiedler, E., Lange, R., & Winebrenner, S. (1993). In search of reality:
Unraveling the myths about tracking, ability grouping, and the gifted.
Roeper Review, 16(1), 4-7.
Gentry, M. L. (1999). Promoting Student Achievement and Exemplary Classroom
Practices through Cluster Grouping: A Research-Based Alternative to Heterogeneous
Elementary Classrooms. Storrs: National Research Center on Gifted and Talented.
ED 429 389.
Hoover, S., Sayler, M., and Feldhusen, J. (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 & G. Davis (Eds.), Handbook of gifted education,
pp. 178-196. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
Rogers, K. (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.
From Teaching Gifted Students in the Regular Classroom (2000), by Susan