Cluster Grouping in Arizona
Arizona has become an interesting laboratory for different school options over the past few years (a lot of the school choice legislation and litigation is coming out of this rapidly growing state) and consequently, gifted education is experiencing some changes as well. An article in the Arizona Republic recently noted that Paradise Valley gifted first graders will now be kept together in clusters. This means that the students identified as gifted will be put in one class with a teacher trained in meeting their needs. They will not be the only students in the class, however. The balance of these first grade classes will be filled with "normal" kids (whatever that means!)
It's an interesting compromise position. On one hand, it's a good thing, as some schools like to spread their gifted children around to different classes and just do pull-out on occasion. Administrators may believe that these kids will provide examples to other students, that these kids are "easier" to teach, and therefore every teacher deserves one. It's awful for the gifted kids themselves, because they quickly get labeled as the smartest kid in the room, or sometimes the teacher's pet. The teacher can rarely create lesson plans specifically for the one kid. So the gifted kids wind up tutoring the other students and becoming unpaid teaching assistants. They also miss out on the social benefits and the academic challenge of being with other kids like themselves. So clustering all the gifted kids in a grade in one class is a massive improvement from the default scheme.
On the other hand, if you're going to cluster and train the teacher (or hire one with a gifted endorsement specifically for this purpose), why not just create a self-contained class? There may not be enough students at one elementary school to justify this, but that's what magnet schools and school buses are for. Even very good teachers have trouble differentiating the curriculum across a wide variety of needs, and group lessons tend to be taught to the lower middle of the bell curve. The cluster system still extracts a high price in terms of efficiency and achievement in order to maintain a quasi-egalitarian set-up. It's better than nothing, but we'll have to see how it works for Paradise Valley, long term.