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No culture left behind: Moving from intelligence to competence

Randall F. Clemens

In education, scholars, practitioners, and policymakers often espouse a deficit cultural perspective to explain academic success and failure; students who succeed exemplify a mainstream culture whereas students who fail represent an oppositional culture. Unfortunately, by “blaming the victim,” such arguments echo previous culture of poverty debates, reinforce stereotypes, and do little to move us forward. 

My dissertation examines the lives of African American and Latino teenagers in a low-income neighborhood. Summarizing my argument in one sentence, we ought to consider a surplus cultural perspective. 

Culture is vibrant, and cultural variation occurs as a result of a range of compositional factors such as race, class, ethnicity, educational attainment, and access to and quality of institutions. As a result, a surplus of cultures exists in neighborhoods in cities like Los Angeles, Washington D.C., and Brooklyn. 

A surplus perspective illustrates the cultural mismatch occurring between what students possess and what our educational system values. We are both failing to harness the strengths of students and de-legitimizing their cultural identities.

Next week, I will use an example to illustrate the cultural mismatch occurring in schools and explain why we ought to shift from conversations about intelligence to cultural competencies.