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Student Placement and Cluster Grouping

April 25, 2014


As principals begin preparing for next year, most meet with their teachers to determine student classroom placement for next year.  They begin selecting students for each classroom and figuring out the best way to allocate the students.  Many try to make sure each classroom has a variety of academic ability levels represented.  If this means that gifted students are spread equally among the classrooms, this usually creates difficulties for both the gifted students and the teachers.  Thankfully, there is a better way!

The Problems

Only one or two gifted students in each classroom can create numerous problems for the students and the teacher.

  • The gifted child does not have intellectual peers in the classroom.  This can cause social and emotional issues.  She may feel very isolated and lonely.  He may withdraw without friends who share common interests.  She may pretend to not be smart to find a group that accepts her.  He may act out or be disruptive.

  • The gifted child may be singled out by the teacher.  Gifted children are often asked to mentor other children, changing the dynamic between students.  A gifted student may be the go-to student when the teacher stumps the class with a question.  She may be given a book to read while other students are receiving instruction.  The teacher may consistently announce his name as the top score.  These actions serve to reinforce that this student is different from all other students in the class.
  • The gifted child may always be the best academically in the class.  This is actually not an enviable position.  He has no peer to compete against and inspire him to do better.  She develops an ego, considering herself better than the other students.  He stops trying.  She hates being the student other students are measured against.
  • The teacher struggles to differentiate for the gifted child.  The teacher has so many academic levels in the classroom, there isn’t time and this student already knows the required curriculum.  There is only one child at this level and the teacher needs to provide instructional support for 24 other students, several of whom are struggling and require more time.  She is very busy and simply can’t afford the time to prepare a separate lesson for one child.
  • The teacher can’t create an appropriate ability group for the gifted child.  The other students in his reading group are several Fountas and Pinnell levels behind him.  In her top-level math group, she is still far ahead and ready for more.  There are like-ability students in other classrooms, but cross-classroom ability grouping isn’t practiced for that subject.
  • The teacher has had no courses or professional development focused on gifted learners.  Two-thirds of teachers have not and most teaching colleges and district administrations do not consider it a high priority topic.  Courses in differentiation strategies only provide a small portion of the information needed, but don’t cover Dabrowski’s Overexcitabilities; the difference between gifted learners, creative thinkers, and high-achievers; or twice-exceptional students.  The teacher may believe several of the myths surrounding gifted children.

The Better Way

Cluster Grouping is a methodology used to distribute students among classrooms to better meet the needs of all students.  It creates core groups of gifted learners and reduces the number of levels inside a classroom, solving many of the issues above.  It is not gifted education in and of itself, but allows for easier application of gifted education techniques.

Cluster Grouping is described very well in this article from the AASA, the School Superintendents Association.  Research shows that it is beneficial to all levels of students from gifted to struggling.  It is a proven technique and can be paired quite effectively with differentiation, maximizing a teacher’s capacity and reducing time and effort required.

It is a benefit to both the gifted students and the teachers.

  •  The gifted child has intellectual peers.  She has a group that understands her.  He has friends who accept his quirkiness.  She can be smart and fit in.  He doesn’t feel as great a need to be disruptive.
  • The gifted child is not singled out.  Even if they are asked to mentor or are still the go-to answerers, they are part of a group and not a lone individual different from everyone.
  • The gifted child has competition and inspiration.  He wants to do better and score higher than his friends.  She draws inspiration from the difficult book her friend is reading and wants to try it too.  He experiences humility when his friends outscore him.  They have peers they measure themselves against instead of being the measuring stick.
  • The teacher has a reduced number of levels in the classroom.  This allows her to devote more time to each level.  Her efforts at differentiation for gifted learners impact several students, not just one.  It reduces her workload even as she becomes more effective.
  • The teacher can create an appropriate ability group for gifted learners.  He can have narrower ranges for reading and math and even ability group for science and social studies.  Cross-classroom ability grouping may still be used, but could be dropped to provide more flexibility in teachers’ schedules.
  • The teacher can have a better understanding of gifted learners.  The gifted cluster group level can be assigned to the teacher with necessary training and a desire to teach gifted children.  If desired, the gifted cluster group can be rotated among teachers every few years.  This still gives teachers not experienced with gifted children time to take professional development before being assigned the gifted cluster level.
  • It is a low cost method for implementing gifted education.  It does not require additional educators or rooms.  There is no software to buy.  And it can help retain students in the school district, vital for the school aid funding base.

Why is Cluster Grouping Not Implemented?

Cluster Grouping has some obvious advantages, but is often ignored or overlooked as a strategy.  Why is this?

  • Many educators don’t know about Cluster Grouping.  There are so many areas and techniques in education, it can be easy to not know of this methodology.
  • Some educators dismiss it as antiquated.  Education has had many fads.  Gifted education has undergone so many revisions.  Some educators see Cluster Grouping as a technique that has been replaced by differentiation.  However, Cluster Grouping helps maximize the effectiveness of differentiation and even if it is not the newest methodology, it has excellent results and is adaptable to today’s classrooms.
  • Cluster Grouping is sometimes viewed as a form of Tracking, a strategy that divides students into fixed groups based on ability.  Differences in ability do exist, but due to mixed-ability classrooms and yearly re-evaluation of student selection, Cluster Grouping allows easier transition between levels than Tracking did.  Mixed-ability classrooms also mean that no student is sorted into a ‘low-ability classroom’.
  • Any system that has selection of students into gifted or high-ability groups will be viewed by some as elitist.  Grouping students by ability is about meeting the needs of each student where they are at and is not a value judgment on their worth.
  • Some educators believe that classrooms should be completely heterogeneous and contain all ability levels.  Cluster Grouping classrooms do contain a variety of levels, but the benefit to teachers is the reduction in the number of levels they need to prepare for.
  • Placing all gifted students in one classroom may be viewed as unfair to teachers.  Teacher evaluations are becoming high stakes and placing a group already proficient with one teacher may skew her results higher at the expense of other teachers.  When teacher evaluations determine merit pay or potential for layoff, it is dangerous to give up your ace students.  The teacher with gifted students may be assumed by parents to be the best teacher and cluster grouping could impact the reputations of teachers at a school.  These can be reduced by rotating gifted cluster level among teachers, data techniques that measure growth instead of proficiency and compensate for the groupings each teacher has, and an explanation to parents about cluster grouping.  Ultimately, the focus must be on the students first.
  • Parents may upset if their children are not in the gifted cluster.  Some students are high average high-achieving learners but not gifted.  However, gifted students and high achievers have different educational needs and placing them in different clusters can help.  Proper procedures do need to be used by the school to identify gifted learners, including those who are often missed, including minority, low-income, and twice exceptional students.  Also, students should be re-evaluated every year to determine the best cluster for them.

What Can I Do?

As a parent, you are limited in your ability to influence education techniques and classroom placement.  As an advocate for your child, you can

  • Send information to your teachers, principal, and district administration about Cluster Grouping.
  • Send in a classroom placement letter with a request similar to “For the sake of my child’s social, emotional, and academic development, please place my child with a core group of students of similar ability, with a teacher who has taken professional development focused on gifted learners and has a proven record of differentiating for high ability students.”
  • Let other parents of gifted learners know about the benefits of Cluster Grouping and ask them to make similar requests.

If you made it this far, you probably also believe that the education of each student, including gifted learners, is important.  For progress to occur, beliefs must be transformed into actions.  If you are a parent, advocate for your children, even if it is tough to do.  They need your voice and you will show them it can take guts to stand up for what is right.  If you are an educator, challenge yourself, your school, and your district to implement at least one new gifted education technique or option in this upcoming year, repeating each year until gifted learners are fully served.  Don’t let your beliefs be hollow!

Together we can make a difference for gifted children!

Thank you for reading Rochester SAGE.

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