Cluster Grouping of Gifted Students: How To Provide Full-Time Services on a Part-Time Budget

By — Educational Resource Information Center (U.S. Department of Education)
Updated on Feb 29, 2008

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. However, the work of many researchers (Allan, 1991; Feldhusen, 1989; Fiedler, Lange, & Winebrenner, 1993; Kulik and Kulik, 1990; Rogers, 1993) clearly documents the benefits of keeping gifted students together in their areas of greatest strength for at least part of the school day. It also appears that all students, including average and below average students, may benefit when gifted students are placed in their own cluster (Gentry, 1999). 

What Does it Mean to Place Gifted Students in Cluster Groups?

A group of three to six identified gifted students, usually those in the top 5% of ability in the grade level population, are clustered in a mixed-ability classroom. The teacher has had training in how to teach exceptionally capable students. If there are more than six gifted students, two or more clusters could 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 levels. 

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 with which to work. 

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 classes. 

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 situation. 

Don't We Need Gifted Students in All Classes so They can Help Others Learn Through Cooperative Learning, Peer Tutoring, Peer Tutoring, and Other Collaborative Models?
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