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Cluster Grouping

One of the options for providing gifted education is cluster grouping.  It is a low-cost or no-cost option 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?

Susan Winebrenner has a great presentation on cluster grouping.  I also recommend Marcia Lynne Gentry’s research study.  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!

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