I have been a teacher for eighteen years, and I was an assistant principal for two years.
What Is Cluster Grouping?
Cluster grouping is when gifted and talented and/or high-achieving students are identified as being within the top five percent and placed in a standard, mixed-ability (heterogeneous) classroom within their grade. Groupings of three to six or five to eight are typical cluster groups. If there are more than eight to ten students meeting the necessary criteria, another cluster group is typically formed and placed in a different class. These groups are instructed by a teacher who has ideally undergone specialized training in differentiated learning, gifted instruction, or both.
Cluster grouping is typically used in upper elementary grades but has been successfully used from kindergarten to high school. Instructional options typically including but are not limited to: curricular enrichment, extensions, higher-order thinking skills, differentiation, compacting, accelerating, and adding more complexity.
Cluster Grouping Model
- Gifted students often feel more comfortable among students with similar ability. Cluster groupings help facilitate this comfort level by increasing the number of high achieving students within one class.
- Teachers tend to teach to the center of ability. Cluster groups tend to raise the level of instruction. Cluster groupings typically result in more challenging tasks that result in increased academics.
- Grouping gifted students together often helps teachers challenge those students more easily.
- Once a student is identified as gifted, special instruction is often legally required. Cluster groupings can fulfill this mandated instruction in a cost-effective, full-time program where students benefit each day.
- Any attempt at improving instruction for gifted children is often an improvement over the norm.
- Cluster groupings provide all-day instructional opportunities that are unavailable to gifted students who merely attend out-of-class enrichment opportunities.
- Cluster groupings do not siphon all of the high-achieving students into one class. Gifted-qualified students and some of the high-achieving students are often placed in the cluster group. The remainder of the high-achieving students are placed into the other classes. These high-achieving students benefit in this model too, as they have new opportunities to become academic leaders.
- Cluster grouping in itself is not effective without worthwhile instruction. Merely placing all of the highest achieving students in one classroom will neither form a cluster group nor automatically result in improved academics. Districts may form cluster groups that are not truly beneficial because of the tendency to skim the “cream” off the top of all classes in order to form one large clustering of gifted or high-achieving students.
- In order for cluster groups to be successful, teachers should ideally receive specialized training. Unfortunately, this isn’t always possible or even likely to occur.
- Teaching a cluster group requires dedication and motivation. Not all teachers have this passion. Finding teachers who truly believe in the model or even gifted education can be a problem.
- Cluster groupings are typically only beneficial when the remainder of the class does not contain difficult or highly demanding students. This doesn’t always occur, and when it does, it often causes resentment from other teachers.
- Placing the right students within a cluster group is always a primary concern. Parental pressure, new students, borderline students, twice-exceptional students, and highly talented yet unmotivated students all pose a challenge to the cluster model.
- In a true cluster model, teachers are often rotated every two or three years. Staff training or the lack of training is a primary concern when this occurs.
- Districts may fail to provide out-of-class enrichment opportunities for gifted students who have been placed within cluster groupings. Cluster groupings seldom provide a truly gifted education program and do not take the place of gifted instruction.
- On paper, cluster grouping gifted students seems to make sense, but little evidence is available to attest to its effectiveness.
The Needs of Gifted and Talented Students
Cluster grouping gifted students tends to be the second most effective method of instruction for gifted students. On paper, this method allows students to receive gifted instruction throughout the day, but in reality, this differentiated instruction may or may not occur in a heterogeneous group. Simply lumping students together doesn’t necessarily result in gifted instruction that is beneficial, and it may result in instruction within areas in which students have not qualified as gifted.