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Gifted Education Options: Cluster Grouping

May 24, 2011

This is the first in a series exploring gifted education options.  I will primarily focus on low-cost and no-cost options as we all understand that budgets are extremely tight right now.

What is clustering?

Clustering, or cluster grouping, is placing three to six gifted students in a group in a mixed-ability classroom under a teacher with training in gifted education.   Gifted students would follow a lesson plan aimed at providing a faster pace or greater depth.  This is not a magnet classroom as there is still the same wide range of students within the classroom.  It is not tracking as much of the school day is spent in mixed-ability education.

What is the cost of clustering?

There is very little cost for clustering.  Additional professional development classes may be needed for some teachers.  Testing may be needed to identify gifted students.

What are the benefits of clustering?

Some benefits of clustering are that one teacher can more easily address the needs of a small group than three teachers each creating lesson plans for 1 or 2 students apiece.  Other forms of gifted education such as pull-out programs only need to be coordinated with one teacher.  Clustering allows gifted students to interact with similar students.  Gifted students also are with peers who are capable of learning at the same pace.  They can better understand and accept their learning differences if there are other like students in the class instead of sticking out as the sole gifted student, which often leads to hiding of one’s abilities.  Clustering also can help prevent bullying by providing a support network for gifted students.

What are the drawbacks of clustering?

By placing all the gifted students in one classroom, there can be issues regarding testing tied to student and teacher performance.  With more emphasis being placed on teacher pay tied to student performance, no teacher wants to give up high-performing students.  Clustering should also not be considered as a complete replacement for other forms of gifted education, but as one used in concert with other techniques.  For school districts with limited funds, it can be a good first step for gifted education.  Clustering also requires a teacher who understands and is committed to gifted education to make sure the cluster group’s curriculum and pace is appropriate.

Will this harm the education of other students in the classroom?

No!  One myth is that gifted students are leaders, mentors, or role models in the classroom.  Studies have shown that other students rarely consider gifted students to be leaders or role models, but choose children of similar academic capabilities to model their behavior after.  Gifted students also usually make poor mentors.  While they understand the material, their distinct learning methods and ability to grasp material easily make it difficult for a gifted student to understand academic struggles.  It is also not the role of a gifted child to be a teacher or mentor.  They are a student who is at school to learn.  Additionally, separating the gifted children during instruction allows other students to interact more with the teacher and can improve their self-esteem.

How can clustering be implemented?

Teachers can identify which students in their classroom are gifted and would benefit from cluster grouping the next year.  These students can be grouped and placed under the appropriate teacher for the next year.  As part of professional development, the teacher can receive training on specializing education for gifted students, compacting curriculum, and the social needs of gifted students.

Why is cluster grouping often not implemented?

Gifted education, particularly dividing students based on ability, is often seen as elitist because it implies some students are better than others.  However, it is no more elitist than moving a gifted athlete from junior varsity to varsity.  It is recognition that students of the same age do not always have the same level of abilities.  Many educators believe that students succeed better in a heterogeneous group and ability grouping does not benefit gifted students.  However, research shows that properly implemented cluster groups can result in two years of progress in a single school year.  There are also concerns about parents politicking to get their child into the gifted cluster group and not having cluster groups avoids these conflicts.

What can I as a parent do?

Talk to your principal and your child’s current teachers.  They will soon be deciding student placement for the coming year.  Let them know of the value of clustering and ask that your child be grouped with students of similar academic capabilities for the benefit of both the child and the teacher.

Where can I find out more about cluster grouping?

Most books about educating gifted and talented students have some information about clustering, but the National Association for Gifted Children has an article on it and Hoagies Gifted has a number of links to explore.

My personal experience

From fifth to eighth grade, the teachers had the four gifted students in the class work together more in math and language arts.  This was one of the best experiences I had in the classroom.  In fifth grade, we completed two years of math through curriculum compacting and were partially accelerated in math for the rest of the years at that school.  In language arts, we again had our curriculum compacted and spent the rest of the year writing book reports.  Both were wonderful as we were able to proceed at the pace that we understood the material, which made school much less tedious and more enjoyable.  It is also one of the few experiences I had that helped my study habits.

In eighth grade, I partially accelerated again in math and I was the only one taking geometry in the school.  The teacher paid less attention to me and I learned less in that class than I had in previous math classes.  I also did not have any study partners or people with whom to discuss the ideas presented.  The cluster grouping in the previous grades had been very helpful.

The cluster grouping also helped socially.  We understood each other.  Our humor was cerebral, not slapstick.  We weren’t the odd ones out, but misfits bonded together by our strengths.  The compacted curriculum allowed time for us to discuss ideas and made us more politically conscious.  We accepted each other.  It was great.

Our cluster grouping came about because of our parents advocating and a teacher willing to try cluster grouping and curriculum compacting.  They worked together to provide us this valuable experience.  Parental advocacy is necessary, particularly when it is a gifted education option not currently in use.

Thank you for reading Rochester SAGE.  Together we can make a difference for gifted students!

3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 19, 2011 3:19 PM

    I have a question about the “Will this harm the education of other students in the classroom?” section. You state that removing gifted children from a classroom does not negatively impact the performance of the remaining children before pointing out that it is not even their place to mentor and bring up the remaining kids. I think the latter is the salient point; I would say it is highly unethical to hold back a gifted child so that he or she could improve the performance of the children around them, even if that did actually work (I guess this goes back to the “equality of opportunity” point in the “Is Gifted Education Equal Education?” blog post). So here is the question: do parents of average kids object when it is suggested that gifted children be put in a separate classroom? Do these parents expect the gifted children to mentor/tutor their own offspring? Anyway, I appreciate what you are doing with this blog.

  2. July 19, 2011 4:21 PM

    Kevin, both parents of average students and teachers often object to removing gifted children from the classroom. I’ve had teachers tell me that gifted children are needed to be role models even though research shows that they aren’t chosen as role models. Gifted children are also often viewed as easy to teach and it is always great to have some children that you won’t have to worry about them understanding the subject. Unfortunately, they also haven’t learned as much as they should have because the material or the pace is below what they are capable of.

    Parents also want the influence of gifted children in the classroom. Do you want your child to be around children modeling academic success or academic difficulty? However, as stated before, gifted children are not chosen as role models, which is probably a good thing. I will never have the basketball skills of a gifted athlete, so being compared to one by my parents, teachers, classmates, or myself will only make me feel like a failure. I’ve known kids who did their best in the classroom, but were always questioned as to why they couldn’t be like the students topping the curve.

    Many parents don’t want to accept that their children are not gifted and often question why their children are not in the gifted cluster. When asking about gifted education, one response I received was the school did not do it because of parent uproar when their children were not selected.

    Another issue is that parents may view the gifted children as receiving resources that their children do not. By keeping all children in one classroom, all kids are viewed as receiving the same resources. It is almost like people being upset because not all children received t-shirts of the same size and more material was used for larger kids. It isn’t fair to larger children to have to wear clothing that is not size-aligned. It isn’t fair to gifted children to receive education that isn’t academically aligned. A larger child needs a larger size of clothing all day. A gifted child needs an accelerated curriculum all day and it is when they aren’t receiving the accelerated curriculum that they are actually getting less resources. While parents probably would understand if larger children received different shirts or their shirts cost more, the mind is not as visible as the body and is treated differently. It is not as immediately apparent that the academics don’t fit the child and different resources are needed.

    I hope this helped answer your question. Thanks for the encouraging words!

    • July 19, 2011 5:13 PM

      Thank you for replying so quickly; your reply didn’t have to be so long (e.g. you are kind of preaching to the choir regarding the benefits of gifted education with me). I guess my problem is with the following mentality you say that parents and teachers exhibit:

      > Do you want your child to be around children modeling academic success or academic difficulty?

      Of course I’d want my kids to be around smart children, but I don’t think it would be fair of me to demand that they be held back simply because my child was not as smart as them. However, it seems like many do not feel that way.

      What I find particularly insidious is that people expect smarter kids to make their children more intelligent, even if it means that, conversely, their children will retard the gifted students.

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