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No culture left behind: Moving from intelligence to competence, Part II

Randall F. Clemens

Last week, I discussed the difference between deficit and surplus perspectives in education. A surplus of cultures exists in many low-income neighborhoods. And yet, current research, policy, and practice often assume a deficit perspective. 

I argued, instead, that scholars, policymakers, and practitioners ought to consider a surplus perspective. Such a perspective refocuses discussions from what African American and Latino teenagers lack to how the educational system can better leverage extant strengths. It also facilitates a discussion of the types of cultural competencies that the educational system does and does not value. Shifting the discussion from intelligence and innate ability to cultural competencies is an important step to acknowledging the potential of all students.

Today, I would like to provide an example of what I mean by cultural competencies:

Chuck is one of the young men with whom I have had the privilege of working and mentoring throughout my dissertation. He likes to draw, skateboard, and dance. He excels at all three. 

Capitalizing on his networking skills, Chuck forms skateboard and dance groups. One group is named Movable Parts; they use the name to distinguish themselves on YouTube in particular and in media in general. The group is known for “jerkin’,” a style of street dancing. He says, “I taught myself and I watch videos like YouTube that I made, and I enhance my dance moves. I danced on MTV and BET before, and I had little gigs with Snoop Dog and stuff.” 

Chuck parlays YouTube hits into dancing sponsorships in order to receive free clothing. In one video, he competes against a friend. The person who posted the video wrote, “One of the best jerk battles around…Vote or Die…LOL.” The video lasts for seven minutes. The two, who exchange dance moves, perform the battle on a sidewalk in front of a concrete wall decorated with graffiti. After the first exchange, a bell rings and “Round Two” flashes across the screen. A song by two local musicians begins playing. Chuck begins. At the end of his turn, he tosses an imaginary ball in the air and hits it with an imaginary bat. Homerun.

The video receives over 105,122 views and 393 comments. The majority of viewers select Chuck. One writes, “Chuck all day.” Another posts, “Chuck kid go hrd.”

Chuck is example of this sort of creative and entrepreneurial competencies that are not recognized in school. He also has a 1.7 grade point average. When I first met him, Chuck wanted to attend San Jose State, major in fine arts, and join the “Dirty Brushes,” an art club. However, I soon learned that he is ineligible to attend a Cal State or UC because of his poor grades. He will most likely have to go to Santa Monica College for a year and then transfer.

How is it possible that an educational system has failed to capitalize on such obvious talents? Chuck is one of the most creative individuals I have ever met. And yet, by conventional educational measures, he does not qualify to attend a Cal State.

If we are to address the gross inequalities occurring in schools today, it is time to acknowledge the cultural mismatch between the competencies students possess and what the educational system values.