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Cluster grouping is an educational process in which four to six gifted and talented (GT) and/or high achieving students are assigned to an otherwise heterogeneous classroom within their grade to be instructed by a teacher that has had specialized training in differentiating for gifted learners. Clustering is to be contrasted with other ability-grouping strategies in which high achievers fill their own dedicated class, entirely separate from other students.
Although typically implemented in the upper elementary grades (3-6), cluster grouping has been used in grades K through 12. The methods for selecting children for cluster groups usually mirror those for other gifted and talented services. Within a cluster, several instructional options are typically used, including: enrichment and extensions, higher-order thinking skills, pretesting and differentiation, compacting, an accelerated pace, and more complexity in content."Through cluster grouping the intellectual, social, and emotional needs of the gifted students can be addressed."
For clustering to be effective, a) the teacher must receive specialized training, b) the teacher must be motivated to work with gifted children, c) the remainder of the class cannot contain difficult or demanding students, and d) the curriculum for the cluster must be appropriately differentiated. Other anecdotal success factors for teachers include: fostering the valuing and acceptance of differences within the classroom, allowing pretesting and credit for previously mastered material, designing independent study that utilizes student passion, remaining flexible in teaching style, and maintaining a sense of humor.
There is strong research evidence supporting the academic benefits of clustering gifted students in a single classroom. According to one survey, advantages include: cost effectiveness, high challenge and expectations of students, faster progression through curricula, administrative ease in observation of services, increased understanding of GT students, and an improved opportunity to address the psychological needs of the GT students. Also, children with subject-specific giftedness, who might otherwise be exclude from gifted pull-outs, can be placed in the cluster classroom to take part in advanced work when appropriate. Some research has shown that clustering grouping produces positive academic results for all children within the cluster classroom. Cluster grouping is not experimental; it has been used successfully since 1974. While no practice is a panacea for gifted instruction, Schuler's national survey showed a 99% positive approval rating among parents of clustered children and a 90% positive approval rating among the children themselves. Over two-thirds of administrators had a similar positive experience.
Comparison to Tracking, Pull-outs, and Mixed-Ability Groups
A comprehensive study of grouping by Rogers states, "Students who are academically or intellectually gifted and talented should spend the majority of their school day with others of similar abilities and interests." Magnet schools, schools within a school, and classrooms composed entirely of gifted students may not be appropriate in all districts. In these situations, the study goes on to state, "The Cluster Grouping of a small number of students, either intellectually gifted or gifted in a similar academic domain, within an otherwise heterogeneously grouped classroom can be considered when schools cannot support a full-time gifted program (either demographically, economically, or philosophically)."
Cluster grouping is distinct from tracking in that tracking organizes entire classrooms by ability, and little mobility exists between tracks as students progress through school. Conversely, cluster groups tends to expand over time rather than remain fixed.
While cluster groups allow GT children to spend the majority of their day with academic peers (as encouraged by research recommendations), pull-outs (also called "send-out" or "resource" programs) tend to meet one to two hours per week. A 1993 U.S. Government report found up to 72% of school districts using the pull-out approach despite this method being generally unsuccessful. This lack of effectiveness has been echoed in more recently literature. Specifically, this is because pull-outs are often a hodge-podge of critical thinking, logic puzzles, and random subjects (like mythology) which are unlikely to result in any significant academic progress because they are not tied directly to the core curriculum. However, pull-out programs, when properly implemented, can be used to complement cluster grouping.
Finally, mixed-ability grouping does not provide academic benefit to gifted children, and it can result in alienation and isolation of GT students. Further, in mixed ability group projects, gifted children frequently do most of the work or teach the other children, which is not their responsibility and for which they have no certification.
Concerns and Criticism
Cluster grouping has experienced some negative reception:
- Teachers in schools that did not limit the extremes with the cluster classroom have expressed frustration at the required range of instruction. For this reason, Winebrenner recommends that the cluster classroom teacher not also have the neediest students.
- Administrators have at times resented special grouping, expressed frustration regarding scheduling, and have simply been biased against any programming for GT children.
- Some educators may become resentful if not selected as the cluster teacher. For fairness, the responsibility and opportunity of cluster grouping can be cycled in two-year terms through faculty members who are interested and have been trained in its use.
- Clusters larger than six students have been criticized as unwieldy. In these cases, Winebrenner recommends splitting the group into two separate classrooms.
- Cluster grouping has been accused of denying academic leadership to other classes, but experience has proven otherwise. When gifted students are grouped for instruction, new leadership emerges among the remaining students.
- Difficulty can arise in placing gifted students who have recently moved into the school district.
- Parents may apply pressure for their children to be placed within the cluster classroom despite their child not qualifying for the cluster group (and despite no research evidence of an inspirational effect). To address this problem, schools can ensure that all staff are trained in differentiation and that all non-GT students are cycled into a cluster classroom at an equal rate over the entirety of their school years.
- Winebrenner, Susan, Teaching Gifted Kids in the Regular Classroom (Free Spirit Publishing, Inc, Minneapolis, MN, 2001), p. 177.
- Schuler, Patricia A., Cluster Grouping Coast to Coast, Neag Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development, University of Connecticut
- Rogers, Karen B, Ph.D. The Relationship of Grouping Practices to the Education of the Gifted and Talented Learner, (The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, 1991 ) pp. 29-30.
- Winebrenner, p. 179.
- Rogers, Karen B, Ph.D., Re-forming Gifted Education (Great Potential Press, Scottsdale, AZ, 2002), pp. 249.
- Winebrenner, pp. 177-178.
- Gentry, M. (1996), Cluster grouping: An investigation of student achievement, identification and classroom practices. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Connecticut, Storrs.
- Rogers, Reforming..., p. 226
- Rogers, Karen B, Ph.D., The Relationship of Grouping Practices to the Education of the Gifted and Talented Learner, (The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, 1991 ) p. xiii.
- Winebrenner, p. 178.
- Gentry, Marcia L. "Promoting Student Achievement and Exemplary Classroom Practices Through Cluster Grouping: A Research-Based Alternative to Heterogeneous Elementary Classrooms." Research Monograph 99138. Storrs, CT: NRC/GT, University of Connecticut, 1999.
- Rogers, Reforming..., p. 219.
- "Part II. The Current Status of Education for the Nation's Most Talented Students," in National Excellence: A Case for Developing America's Talent (online). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, 1993)
- Davidson, Jan and Bob, with Vanderkam, Laura (Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, NY, NY, 2004) Genius Denied: How to Stop Wasting Our Brightest Young Minds, p. 67.
- Rogers, Re-forming..., p. 221.
- Winebrenner, Susan, and Devlin, Barbara, Cluster Grouping Fact Sheet: How to Provide Full-Time Services for Gifted Students on Limited Budgets
- Rogers, Reforming..., p. 249.
- Winbrenner, p. 197.
- Winebrenner, p. 180.
- Winebrenner, p. 177.
- Winebrenner, p. 178.
- Winebrenner, pp. 180-181.
- Winebrenner and Devlin
- Davidson, Jan and Bob, with Vanderkam, Laura (2004) Genius Denied: How to Stop Wasting Our Brightest Young Minds
- Rogers, Karen B, Ph.D. (2002) Re-forming Gifted Education: How Parents and Teachers Can Match the Program to the Child.
- Winebrenner, Susan, (2001) Teaching Gifted Kids in the Regular Classroom