Cluster Grouping of Gifted Students:
How to Provide Full-time Services on a Part-time Budget
ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education (ERIC EC)
The Council for Exceptional Children
1920 Association Drive
Reston, VA 20191
Toll Free: 1.800.328.0272
EC Digest #E538
Authors: Susan Winebrenner and Barbara Devlin
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
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
Gifted Students Be Placed in a Cluster Group Instead of Being Assigned
Evenly to All Classes?
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?
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
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.
Need Gifted Students in All Classes So They Can Help Others Learn Through
Cooperative Learning, Peer Tutoring, and Other Collaborative Models?
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.
Students Are Not Placed in Some Classes, Won't Those Classes Lack Positive
Role Models for Academic and Social Leadership?
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
How Does the
Cluster Grouping Concept Fit in with the Inclusion Models That Integrate
Students with Exceptional Educational Needs into Regular Classes?
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.
Presence of the Clustered Gifted Students Inhibit the Performance of the
Other Students in That Class, Having a Negative Effect On Their
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.
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.
Specific Skills Are Needed by Cluster Teachers?
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
Create conditions in which all students will be stretched to learn.
Allow students to demonstrate and get credit for previous mastery of
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.
Cluster Grouping Model Replace Out-of-class Enrichment Programs For Gifted
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"
Clustering Feasible Only in Elementary Schools?
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."
Records Kept of the Progress Made by Students in Cluster Groups?
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?
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 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 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 by
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.
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 teachers.
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, Lange,
& Winebrenner (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.
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grouping and the gifted? Educational Leadership, 48(6), 60-65.
(1989). Synthesis of research on gifted youth. Educational Leadership,
Lange, R., & Winebrenner, S. (1993). In search of reality: Unraveling
the myths about tracking, ability grouping, and the gifted. Roeper Review,
Sayler, M., & Feldhusen, J. (1993). Cluster grouping of gifted
students at the elementary level. Roeper Review, 16(1), 13-15.
& Kulik, C-L.C. (1990). Ability grouping and gifted students. In N.
Colangelo & G. Davis (Eds.), Handbook of gifted education
(pp.178-196). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
(1993). Grouping the gifted and talented. Roeper Review, 16(1), 8-12.
Schunk, D. H.
(1987). Peer models and children's behavioral change. Review of
Educational Research, 57, 149-174.
Winebrenner, M.S., is the author of Teaching Gifted Kids in the Regular
Barbara Devlin, Ph.D., is Superintendent of Schools in Richfield, MN.