Cluster Grouping of Gifted Students:
How to Provide Full-time Services on a Part-time Budget
The ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education (ERIC EC)
ERIC EC Digest #E538
Authors: Susan Winebrenner and Barbara Devlin
What Does it Mean to Place Gifted Students in Cluster Groups?
A group of five to eight identified gifted students, usually those in the
top 5% of ability in the grade level population, are clustered in the
classroom of one teacher who has training in how to teach exceptionally
capable students. The other students in that class are of mixed ability.
If there are more than eight to ten gifted students, two or more clusters
should be formed.
Isn't Cluster Grouping the Same as Tracking?
No. In a tracking system, all students are grouped by ability for much of
the school day, and students tend to remain in the same track throughout
their school experience. Gifted students benefit from learning together,
and need to be placed with similar students in their areas of strength
(Hoover, Sayler, & Feldhusen, 1993; Kulik & Kulik, 1990; Rogers, 1993).
Cluster grouping of gifted students allows them to learn together, while
avoiding permanent grouping arrangements for students of other ability
Why Should Gifted Students Be Placed in a Cluster Group Instead of Being
Assigned Evenly to All Classes?
When teachers try to meet the diverse learning needs of all students, it
becomes extremely difficult to provide adequately for everyone. Often,
the highest ability students are expected to "make it on their own." When
a teacher has several gifted students, taking the time to make appropriate
provisions for them seems more realistic. Furthermore, gifted students
can better understand and accept their learning differences if there are
others just like them in the class. Finally, scheduling out-of-class
activities is easier when the resource teacher has only one cluster
teacher's schedule to work with.
What Are the Learning Needs of Gifted Students?
Since these students have previously mastered many of the concepts they
are expected to "learn" in a given class, a huge part of their school time
may be wasted. They need exactly what all other students need: consistent
opportunity to learn new material and to develop the behaviors that allow
them to cope with the challenge and struggle of new learning. It is very
difficult for such students to have those needs met in heterogeneous
Isn't Gifted Education Elitist?
Gifted students need consistent opportunities to learn at their challenge
level -- just as all students do. It is inequitable to prevent gifted
students from being challenged by trying to apply one level of difficulty
for all students in mixed-ability classes. When teachers can provide
opportunities for all students, including those who are gifted, to be
challenged by rigorous curriculum, there is nothing elitist about the
Don't We Need Gifted Students in All Classes So They Can Help Others Learn
Through Cooperative Learning, Peer Tutoring, and Other Collaborative
When gifted students are placed in mixed-ability groups for cooperative
learning, they frequently become tutors. Other students in these groups
may rely on the gifted to do most of the work and may actually learn less
than when the gifted students are not in their groups. When gifted
students work in their own cooperative learning groups from time to time
on appropriately challenging tasks, they are more likely to develop
positive attitudes about cooperative learning. At the same time, other
students learn to become more active learners because they are not able to
rely so heavily on the gifted students. When the learning task focuses on
content some students already know, those students should be learning how
to cooperate in their own groups on extension tasks that are difficult
enough to require cooperation. When the cooperative task is open-ended
and requires critical or divergent thinking, it is acceptable to include
the gifted students in heterogeneous cooperative learning groups.
If Gifted Students Are Not Placed in Some Classes, Won't Those Classes
Lack Positive Role Models for Academic and Social Leadership?
Research on role modeling (Schunk, 1987) indicates that to be effective,
role models cannot be drastically discrepant in ability from those who
would be motivated by them. Teachers overwhelmingly report that new
leadership "rises to the top" in the non-cluster classes. There are many
students, other than identified gifted students, who welcome opportunities
to become the new leaders in groups that no longer include the top 5% of a
grade level group. This issue becomes a problem only when more than 5 to
10% of students are clustered. As classes are formed, be sure the classes
without clusters of gifted students include several highly capable
How Does the Cluster Grouping Concept Fit in with the Inclusion Models
That Integrate Students with Exceptional Educational Needs into Regular
The inclusion model, in which students with exceptional learning needs are
integrated into regular classrooms, is compatible with the concept of
cluster grouping of gifted students, since both groups have exceptional
educational needs. The practice of cluster grouping allows educators to
come much closer to providing better educational services for groups of
students with similar exceptional learning needs. In non-cluster
classrooms, teachers report they are able to pay more attention to the
special learning needs of those for whom learning may be more difficult.
Some schools choose to avoid placing students with significant learning
difficulties in the same class that has the cluster group of gifted
students. A particular class may have a cluster of gifted students and a
cluster of special education students as long as more than one adult is
sharing the teaching responsibilities.
Won't the Presence of the Clustered Gifted Students Inhibit the
Performance of the Other Students in That Class, Having a Negative Effect
On Their Achievement?
When the cluster group is kept to a manageable size, many cluster teachers
report that there is general improvement in achievement for the entire
class. This suggests the exciting possibility that when teachers learn
how to provide what gifted students need, they also learn to offer
modified versions of the same opportunities to the entire class, thus
raising the level of learning for all students, including those who are
gifted. The positive effects of the cluster grouping practice may be
shared with all students over several years by rotating the cluster
teacher assignment among teachers who have had gifted education training
and by rotating the other students so all students eventually have a
chance to be in the same class with a cluster group.
How Should Students Be Identified for the Cluster Group?
If there will be one cluster, its highly capable students should be those
who have demonstrated that they will need curriculum that exceeds grade
level parameters. Traditional measures, such as standardized tests may
also be used, but not as the sole criteria. If there will be more than
one cluster, those highly capable in specific subjects might be grouped
together in separate clusters. Profoundly gifted students should always be grouped
together, since there will rarely be more than two such students in any grade level.
Identification should be conducted each spring with the help of someone with
training in gifted education.
What Specific Skills Are Needed by Cluster Teachers?
Since gifted students are as far removed from the "norm" as are students with
significant learning difficulties, it is necessary for teachers to have special
training in how to teach children of exceptionally high ability. Cluster teachers
should know how to:
- recognize and nurture behaviors usually demonstrated by gifted students
- create conditions in which all students will be stretched to learn
- allow students to demonstrate and get credit for previous mastery of concepts
- provide opportunities for faster pacing of new material
- incorporate students' passionate interests into their independent studies
- facilitate sophisticated research investigations
- provide flexible grouping opportunities for the entire class
Should the Cluster Grouping Model Replace Out-of-Class Enrichment
Programs for Gifted Students?
No. Cluster grouping provides an effective complement to any gifted education
program. Gifted students need time to be together when they can just "be
themselves." The resource teacher might also provide assistance to all classroom
teachers in their attempts to differentiate the curriculum for students who need it.
As a matter of fact, this resource person is being called a "Schoolwide Enrichment
Specialist" in many schools instead of a "Gifted Program Coordinator" in recognition
of the fact that so many students can benefit from "enriching" learning opportunities.
Is Clustering Feasible Only in Elementary School?
No. Cluster grouping may be used at all grade levels and in all subject areas. Gifted
students may be clustered in one section of any heterogeneous class, especially when
there are not enough students to form an advanced section for a particular subject.
Cluster grouping is also a welcome option in rural settings, or wherever small numbers of
gifted students make appropriate accommodations difficult. Keep in mind, however, if your
school has enough gifted students for separate sections in which curriculum is accelerated,
such sections should be maintained. Many middle schools have quietly returned to the
practice of offering such sections. Placement in cluster groups is gained by demonstrating
that one needs a differentiated curriculum by proving one is "gifted."
How Are Records Kept of the Progress Made by Students in Cluster Groups?
Differentiated Educational Plans (DEPs) should be maintained for gifted students and
filed with their other ongoing records. In some schools, teachers develop a DEP for the
cluster group, rather than for individual students. These plans briefly describe the
modifications that are planned for the group and should be shared with parents regularly.
What Are the Advantages of Cluster Grouping?
Gifted students feel more comfortable when there are other students just like them in the
class. They are more likely to choose more challenging tasks when other students will
also be eligible. Teachers no longer have to deal with the strain of trying to meet the
needs of just one precocious student in a class. The school is able to provide a full-time,
cost-effective program for gifted students, since their learning needs are being met every
What Are the Disadvantages of Cluster Grouping?
There may be pressure from parents to have their children placed in a cluster classroom,
even if they are not in the actual cluster group. Gifted students may move into the district
during the school year and may not be able to be placed in the cluster classroom. These
situations may be handled by:
- providing training for all staff in compacting and differentiation so parents can
expect those opportunities in all classes
- requiring parents to provide written documentation of their child's need for
curriculum differentiation instead of requesting the placement by phone
- rotating the cluster teacher assignment every 2 years among teachers who have
had appropriate training so parents understand that many teachers are capable of
teaching gifted students
- rotating other students into cluster classrooms over several years
Another disadvantage might arise if the cluster teachers are not expected to consistently
compact and differentiate the curriculum. Their supervisor must expect them to maintain
the integrity of the program, and must provide the needed support by facilitating regular
meetings of cluster teachers, and by providing time for the enrichment specialist to
assist the cluster teachers.
There is an alarming trend in many places to eliminate gifted education programs in the
mistaken belief that all students are best served in heterogeneous learning environments.
Educators have been bombarded with research that makes it appear that there is no
benefit to ability grouping for any students. The work of Allan (1991); Feldhusen (1989);
Fiedler, Lange, & Winebrenner (1993); Kulik and Kulik (1990); Rogers (1993) and others
clearly documents the benefits of keeping gifted students together in their areas of
greatest strength for at least part of the school day. It appears that average and below
average students have much to gain from heterogeneous grouping, but we must not
sacrifice gifted students' needs in our attempts to find the best grouping practices for
If we do not allow cluster groups to be formed, gifted students may find their
achievement and learning motivation waning in a relatively short period of time.
Parents of gifted students may choose to enroll their children in alternative programs,
such as home schooling or charter schools. The practice of cluster grouping represents
a mindful way to make sure gifted students continue to receive a quality education at
the same time as schools work to improve learning opportunities for all students.
Allan, S. (1991). Ability grouping research reviews: What do they say about grouping
and the gifted? Educational Leadership, 48(6), 60-65.
Feldhusen, J. (1989). Synthesis of research on gifted youth. Educational Leadership,
Fiedler, E., Lange, R., & Winebrenner, S. (1993). In search of reality: Unraveling the
myths about tracking, ability grouping, and the gifted. Roeper Review, 16(1),
Hoover, S., Sayler, M., and Feldhusen, J. (1993). Cluster grouping of gifted students
at the elementary level. Roeper Review, 16(1), 13-15.
Kulik, J.A., & Kulik, C-L. C (1990). Ability grouping and gifted students. In N.
Colangelo & G. Davis (Eds.), Handbook of gifted education, pp. 178-196.
Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
Rogers, K. (1993). Grouping the gifted and talented. Roeper Review, 16(1),
Schunk, D.H. (1987). Peer models and children's behavioral change. Review of
Educational Research, 57, 149-174.
ERIC Digests are in the public domain and may be freely reproduced and disseminated,
but please acknowledge your source. This publication was prepared with funding from
the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education,
under Contract No. RR93002005. The opinions expressed in this report do not
necessarily reflect the positions or policies of OERI or the Department of Education.
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