The Edvocate’s Guide to Cluster Grouping

Cluster grouping is a method educators utilize to meet gifted kids’ educational needs. If cluster grouping isn’t practiced at a certain grade level or a certain school, contemplate requesting educators or administrators to implement this method so that all kids can learn at a suitable pace.

How does cluster grouping work? It’s simple. Gifted kids in one grade level are grouped in one class. For instance, if a school has three distinct third grade classes and five gifted kids in third grade, all five of these kids would be placed in one of the three third grade classes rather than split up and placed in the distinct classes. This makes it easier for educators to deliver instruction to them at a suitable level for their needs.

The gifted kids placed in cluster groups need not be globally gifted. Instead, they may be gifted in one educational area, such as reading or math. Consequently, the mathematically gifted kids might be placed in one class while the verbally gifted are in another class. However, placing them in distinct classes is a problem if any of the kids are globally gifted or gifted throughout subject areas since they can’t be in both classes simultaneously.

Movement in and out of these groups is relatively fluid. A kid may be in the advanced group in math but not in reading. Moreover, the kid’s gifted status may change from year to year, meaning they could be in the advanced math group one year but not the next year.

Cluster grouping isn’t always practiced at one grade level. Some kids may be gifted but haven’t been identified as such yet. Other learners may be newcomers to a school with capabilities unknown to the staff, making it unlikely that school faculty or administrators know ahead of time to place kids in one class.

However, an educator may notice that they have a handful of learners with good language capabilities and another handful with good math or artistic capabilities. Accordingly, the educator may split their class into thirds based on learners’ capabilities. This allows educators to deliver instruction in a suitable way for a wide range of learners in the class.

Cluster grouping is an inexpensive way for schools to meet the educational needs of gifted kids. However, educators must be able to differentiate instruction for the distinct levels of ability in the class.

Cluster grouping gifted learners tends to be the second most efficient method of instruction for gifted learners. On paper, this method allows learners to receive gifted instruction throughout the day, but in reality, this differentiated instruction may or may not happen in a heterogeneous group. Simply lumping learners doesn’t necessarily result in gifted instruction that is beneficial, and it may result in instruction within areas in which learners have not qualified as gifted.

Cluster grouping is usually used in upper elementary grades but has been successfully used from kindergarten to high school. Instructional options usually include curricular enrichment, extensions, higher-order thinking skills, differentiation, compacting, accelerating, and adding more complexity.

The Pros

  • Gifted learners often feel more comfortable among learners with similar abilities. Cluster groupings help facilitate this comfort level by increasing the number of high achieving learners within one class.
  • Teachers tend to teach to the center of ability. Cluster groups tend to raise the level of instruction. Cluster groupings usually result in more challenging assignments that result in increased academics.
  • Grouping gifted learners often help educators challenge those learners more easily.
  • Once a learner is identified as gifted, special instruction is often legally required. Cluster groupings can fulfill this mandated instruction in a cost-efficient, full-time program where learners benefit each day.
  • Any attempt at improving instruction for gifted kids is often an improvement over the norm.
  • Cluster groupings provide all-day teaching opportunities that are unavailable to gifted learners who merely attend out-of-class enrichment opportunities.
  • Cluster groupings do not siphon all of the high-achieving learners into one class. Gifted-qualified learners and some of the high-achieving learners are often placed in the cluster group. The remainder of the high-achieving learners are placed into the other courses. These high-achieving learners benefit from this model too, as they have new opportunities to become leaders.

The Cons

  • Cluster grouping in itself is not efficient without practical instruction. Merely placing all of the highest achieving learners in one class will neither form a cluster group nor automatically improve academics. Districts may form cluster groups that are not truly beneficial because of the tendency to skim the “cream” off the top of all courses to form one large clustering of gifted or high-achieving learners.
  • For cluster groups to be successful, educators should ideally receive specialized training. Unfortunately, this isn’t always possible or even likely to happen.
  • Teaching a cluster group requires dedication and motivation. Not all educators have this passion. Finding educators who truly believe in the model or even gifted education can be a problem.
  • Cluster groupings are usually only beneficial when the class’s remainder does not contain difficult or highly demanding learners. This doesn’t always happen, and when it does, it often causes resentment from other educators.
  • Placing the right learners within a cluster group is always a primary concern. Parental pressure, new learners, borderline learners, twice-exceptional learners, and highly talented yet unmotivated learners pose a challenge to the cluster model.
  • In a true cluster model, educators 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 learners 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 learners seems to make sense, but little evidence attests to its effectiveness.
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