An Alternate Style of Teaching

The Johnston Community School District has used cluster grouping as a means of serving gifted students in grades K-8 for many years. While clustering was initially promoted as a means of serving gifted children, it also works well to deliver services for ELL, Special Education, and others. Several specific approaches involving careful structuring of the entire class has emerged over the last ten years. Researchers in the field of gifted education differ slightly on approaches as far as numbers in a class, with the range of gifted students recommended in a class. Johnston’s range is likely to be between 4-8 in the elementary levels, with Summit, being a larger building usually having clusters of at least 5. A critical issue is the number of levels of ability in once class, not how many identified gifted are placed, according to Gentry’s research.

Cluster grouping: An intentional grouping of gifted students within a classroom with a teacher who has the training and desire to provide differentiated instruction to meet the needs of the gifted in the classroom. The range of learning levels is reduced, thus providing for more opportunity to meet needs of all learners within a classroom.

Research-based benefits of cluster grouping

  • High achievement maintained in all classrooms
  • Gifted students regularly interact with their intellectual and age peers
  • Programming for gifted students without additional costs
  • Curricular and instructional differentiation is efficient, effective, and likely to occur when a group of high achievers is placed with a trained teacher
  • Placing the highest achievers together allows others to emerge as achievers
  • Student achievement increases when clustering occurs
  • Fewer students are identified as low achievers and more as high achievers
  • Reduces the range of achievement levels addressed by teachers

General Implications

  • A well-developed cluster-grouping program can help meet all students’ needs
  • Limiting the number of achievement levels in elementary classrooms can help teachers better address individual needs while still maintaining some heterogeneity
  • Placing the high achievers in one classroom can better meet their needs while offering the opportunity for talent to emerge in other classrooms
  • When cluster grouping is done effectively, the number of identified children increases
  • Staff development for advanced students benefits all teachers to meet high expectations


  • Brulles, D. and Winebrenner, S. The Cluster Grouping Handbook. Minneapolis: Free Spirit. 2008.
  • Gentry, M. & Owen, S.V. “ An Investigation of Total School Flexible Cluster Grouping on Identification, Achievement, and Classroom Practices”. Gifted Child Quarterly, vol. 43, 1999. 224-243.
  • Gentry, M. & Mann, R. Total School Cluster Grouping & Differentiation. Creative Learning Press, Mansfield Center, CN. 2008.
  • “Total School Cluster Grouping: A Model to Improve Student Achievement and Teacher Practices”. M. Gentry and J. MacDougall. Purdue University. 2007.