Thursday, April 05, 2007

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.


Anonymous said...

Clustering may be better than magnet schools, since kids can continue to go to schools that are nearby and not waste huge chunks of their day on transportation.

Anonymous said...

In concept, clustering is a good way to provide gifted services throughout the day in an economical fashion. In practice effective clustering is very difficult to pull off.

My children's school clusters the GT students. However, the school district provides little training or support to the teachers in how to differentiate instruction. Effective differentiation is very difficult, even with adequate training and support. Moreover, the school has succombed to pressure from parents of students who are advanced, but not gifted to include these students in the gifted cluster classes.

Clustering works best, both for the non-gifted advanced students and the gifted students if the gifted students are clustered with average and slightly below average students rather than non-gifted advanced students. When the gifted students and the non-gifted advanced students are separated, the non-gifted students get an opportunity to shine and the gifted children can be taught at a higher level. When the groups are combined, all lose out. The non-gifted kids are overshadowed by the gifted kids and the level of instruction provided to the cluster is diluted since the non-gifted advanced students are included in the "differentiated" activities. The gifted students, especially those who are highly gifted, do not receive adequate stimulation. Unfortunately this is what has happened in the school district my children attend.

Hopefully the Paradise Valley experience will be different from our family's experience with clustering.

Anonymous said...

My child is very advanced and may well be gifted, but the school has not recognized her as such. She is in a class with the cluster of gifted students and it has been wonderful for her. She is not overshadowed by the gifted kids and has been able to shine. It's been her best year yet.

Conceptually, I agree that clustering the non-gifted advanced with the gifted may not be the best thing. In reality though, many of those non-gifted advanced kids, not recognized as gifted by the school, may actually be gifted themselves and benefit from being in the same class as the cluster of gifted students.

Unfortunately, it still comes down to providing school districts with the funding they need to adequately test and educate all of our students.

Douglas said...

Marcia Lynne Gentry's research on Cluster Grouping directly addresses the anonymous poster's comment that some of the students who are not initially recognized as gifted may actually be gifted. In fact, one of the benefits that she found was "that more students were identified as high achieving each subsequent year" (p vii).

My school district currently seems to implement the XYZ-grouping model of clustering, which was found to have negligible impact. In other words, when a few gifted kids are put together in a classroom without a differentiated curriculum, the results are as Laura described. I am hoping that I can convince the administration to follow more closely the Gentry model where a significant percentage (e.g. 25%) of one class is Gifted and no above-average students are included in that class.

I'm curious if anyone has any advice on achieving this end.

Anonymous said...

My son is in 5th grade and was put into a class with only 1 other gifted student. There are 2 other 5th grade classes with atleast 6 to 7 other gifted children in each. I feel he needs to be in the classes with bigger groups of gifted,I asked for him to be moved into one of those classrooms and the principal says he really doesn't need to be. I am going into his G.I.E.P meeting Tuesday with the principal, Superintendent, gifted teacher, and head of Special Ed. teacher. I need help in explaining why clustering is important. My son is the youngest of the 5th graders as he skipped Kindergarten and went into 1st grade. I really feel that is is doing him more harm being in a class where there are children with behavior problems,lower test scores, and only 1 other gifted child. Please help me locate any info stating how clustering is good.Thank you.

Davidson Institute Staff said...

Clustering and ability grouping are certainly hot topics, especially in regards to meeting the needs of gifted students. The following articles address research relevant to this topic. Please feel free to explore these topics and others in the Davidson Institute’s free online database – GT CyberSource

* Grouping the gifted and talented: Questions and answers

* The elephant in the classroom:

* An analysis of the research on ability grouping:

* Ability grouping is not just tracking anymore:

* In Search of Reality: Unraveling the Myths about Tracking, Ability Grouping, and the Gifted:

* The Balanced View:

* Ability Grouping in Elementary Schools:

* The Relationship of Grouping Practices to the Education of the Gifted and Talented Learner:

Anonymous said...

Throughout my school-years, I was an identified gifted child. I experienced many programs and teachers...some great, some awful. As an adult I am now a teacher with a certification in G/T education. I taught a cluster classroom for the pst 4 years. Our school is currently facing a heated controversy over GT clustering. The "non-cluster" teachers think it is "unfair to give all the smart kids to one teacher." (even though that is NOT what clustering means!) The administrator is hearing these complaints and siding with them. Despite my attempts at sharing research, knowledge, and experiences about what is best for our gifted learners and ALL students, several teachers are still dead-set in their opinions of what's "fair."

Does anyone have any other ideas/advice on how to enlighten the strong-willed, misguided opinions of highly influential teachers/administrators?

I fear that putting the gifted students with a teacher that does not understand or believe in their different needs (nor has the passion or required certificates/training) will be severely detrimental in the long run. And according to the research, it will negatively affect achievement gains for all students...

Any input would be appreciated.

Ronald said...

In reply to Anonymous, perhaps both sides of the argument have merits. It is not totally unreasonable for a teacher to feel that she is being treated unfairly if not given a few smart kids.
I can also see your concern that some gifted students may not develop fully in normal classes. Perhaps teachers can be rotated or perhaps more teachers can be trained to take gifted students.
What I do know is that the present testing environment favors teachers with more passes and so this may push teachers to want an even ability distribution since they have a chance of getting passes. Perhaps there is a need for teachers to talk more with each other to find meaningful solutions for all.