Category Archives: Education (K-12)

Sex, Genes, Love and Rape

Rape protest at UVa

Rape protest at UVa

by James A. Bacon

Emotions are running high in the discussion of the “epidemic of rape” at the University of Virginia. I get the sense that we’re wandering in a fog.  Not only are there wildly conflicting numbers regarding the incidence  of rape (a worthy topic for another blog post), making it difficult to gauge how extensive the problem is, people are talking past one another. There is considerable conceptual confusion about what is happening on college campuses and why.

As I see it, there are three broad frameworks for approaching the issue of sexual relations and sexual assaults at UVa. The first reflects the perspective of traditional morality, which recognizes the flawed nature of mankind and applies traditional norms for regulating sexual behavior. The second, the Darwinian outlook, seeks to understand the relationship between the sexes from the perspective of evolutionary biology. In this view, the male and female sexes have evolved different reproductive and mating strategies to maximize their genetic fitness, and often want different different things from sexual encounters. The third, the deconstructionist view, strips God and biology out of the equation and asserts that gender and sexual norms are purely social constructs.

In the United States, I would argue, we have transitioned from a set of institutional arrangements based upon traditional morality (pre-marital sex on campus is to be stifled) to institutional arrangements based upon the deconstructionist philosophy (anything goes… except for violence against women) without paying much heed to the biological basis of human behavior.

Traditional morality recognizes the power of the sexual impulse, generally framing it as a temptation to be resisted outside of marriage. The emphasis on chastity, especially female chastity, made sense in the era preceding the sexual revolution when sex was inextricably joined with procreation. Chaste women did not get pregnant, they did not bear children out of wedlock and they were not saddled with the financial and psychological obligation of raising a child (or children) alone. Traditional sexual morality was entwined with the traditional view of the family: that children are best raised in the same household as their biological parents. Traditional morality extended to the campus as well. Men did not always act behave like chivalrous “gentlemen” towards ladies, but society expected them to and condemned them when they didn’t. While rapes did occur on campus, they were relatively rare and they were regarded as scandalous. As a consequence, there was no “epidemic of rape.”

The sexual revolution of the 1960s brought an end to traditional morality on campus. Once upon a time, men and women lived in segregated dorms, colleges restricted men’s access to women’s dormitory rooms, fraternities had house mothers and parties were chaperoned. All of those restrictions and inhibitions have been cast away. Much to the delight of students, colleges got out of the business of enforcing traditional sexual morality. The attitude of college administrators became one of moral laissez-faire: What the students did was their own business.

Reinforcing the relaxation of traditional standards were pervasive changes in society at large. Divorce became common. Out-of-wedlock births were de-stigmatized. Acceptance of gay sexuality spread. Perhaps most important, many proponents of traditional morality updated their values for the age of birth control. When men and women frequently delay marriage until their 30s, it is unrealistic to expect them to remain chaste for 15 years or more. Most Baby Boomer parents of college-bound children are comfortable with channeling sexual relations channeled into loving monogamous relationships outside marriage. These neo-traditional relationships need not be life-long but they are underpinned by a strong conviction that committed partners do not cheat on one another. Promiscuity is frowned upon. Among families of college-bound men and women today, the ideal of serial monogamy is arguably the dominant ethos. Thus, serial monogamy is the default moral setting for most college-bound kids when they arrive on campus.

But college culture is very different from the culture of broader society. For one, colleges are jam-packed with 18- to 22-year-olds at the peak of physical attractiveness and desire. They have more freedom and less responsibility than at any time of their lives, and many have every intention of taking full advantage of the fact. They are ready to party and have fun. They are also much more precocious about sex than their Baby Boomer parents. While Boomers learned about sex by sneaking peeks at “dirty magazines,” young people today are exposed to ubiquitous online pornography. To a significant degree, relations between the sexes has been pornofied. Because the dominant market for pornography is sex-obsessed young males, the id-driven fantasies of sex-obsessed young males has become the template for modern-day sexual coupling. Women are treated as objects whose purpose is to provide sexual gratification to men.

Concurrent with the revolution of ubiquitous pornography has been the feminist revolution, asserting female rights and prerogatives in a male-dominated society. In society at large, feminism was associated mainly with such workforce issues as equal pay, sexual harassment and the glass ceiling. Many women deemed themselves feminists even while adhering to neo-traditional norms of serial monogamy. But colleges and universities have become a petri dish for all manner of radical offshoots. Rejecting traditional morality associated with an oppressive male patriarchy, one strand of strand of feminism insisted that women should be free to explore their sexuality as freely as men supposedly do — seeking a variety of partners in expectation-free, guilt-free encounters. This strand of thought is underpinned by the conviction that traditional gender roles and sexual preferences are purely social constructs. There is no “human nature.” Men and women should be free to define their own sexuality however they please, whether they are straight, gay, bisexual or transgender. (I would hasten to add that some feminists abhor pornography for its objectification of women. The feminist movement is hardly monolithic.)

So, three broad cultural trends have intersected in college campuses: the laissez-faire approach of college administrations; the pornofication of sexuality, especially though not exclusively among young men; and the spread of feminist views of sexuality among young women. This would be a combustible mix under any circumstances. But colleges add two more ingredients: binge drinking and a fraternity sub-culture that celebrates male bonding and solidarity, which at its best can lead to long-lasting ties of brotherhood but at its worst can descend into misogyny. Continue reading

Chart of the Day: K-12 Demographics

enrollments

Enrollment of Hispanics in Virginia schools surged in 2010 and hasn’t slowed down since. If the trend line continues — and there is no assurance that it will — Hispanics could become the second largest ethnic/racial group within ten to fifteen years. Asians are gaining ground as a percentage of the school population as well, though far more slowly.

(Thanks to Jim Weigand for the chart.)

– JAB

Who Speaks for the Victims of the “Victims”?

disciplineby James A. Bacon

Cosmological theorists posit the existence of an infinitude of alternate universes. In one of those universes, perhaps there is one with a Henrico County School System that collects data showing that African-American students are more likely to suffer from violence and disrupted classes in school rather than data showing that African-American students are more likely to be suspended from school.

Unfortunately, in our universe, an array of political forces focuses public sympathy upon the kids who disrupt the learning environment rather than those whose learning is disrupted. The trouble makers are classified as victims. The victims of the victims are ignored.

As a result, readers of the Times-Dispatch are treated to yet another front-page hand-wringer about the disproportionate suspension of African-American students in Henrico schools. Over five years, it appears, Henrico has succeeded in reducing the number of suspensions from almost 10,200 in the school year ending in 2010 to 6,500 in the school year ending in 2014. Alas, in so doing, the percentage of African-Americans among all suspended students has increased from 74.6% to 77.7% over the same period. Reporter Ted Strong quotes the usual suspects on how the disparate results might reflect discrimination against African-Americans and gives a megaphone to School Board member Lamont Bagby, who wants more resources for more intensive therapeutic services for the kids creating the trouble.

This entire controversy is built upon the statistical disparity in suspensions between African-Americans and students of other racial/ethnic classifications. African-Americans account for 36.8% of the students in the school system but 77.7% of the suspensions. That disparity by itself is deemed evidence of discrimination as opposed to, say, evidence of lower incomes, rate of single-mother households or other sociological features of the African-American population. The Times-Dispatch has systematically mined the “discrimination” angle but given virtually no attention whatsoever to the socio-economic characteristics of the students being disciplined.

The Times-Dispatch skips over the fact that most suspensions take place in overwhelmingly black-majority schools where teachers and administrators are themselves disproportionately black. It apparently has never occurred to the Times-Dispatch to ask if African-American teachers and administrators are prone to discriminating against students of their own race or if they are simply responding to incidents on a case-by-cash basis, in which a disproportionate number of troubled, disruptive kids are black.

Perhaps worse, the Times-Dispatch has shown no concern whatsoever for the victims of the so-called victims. What are the standards and procedures for suspending a student? How much disruptive behavior are students permitted before they are suspended? The T-D does not tell us. Has the T-D interviewed teachers and principals to ask if they are frustrated by the limited means at their disposal to discipline misbehaving students? Are teachers frustrated by the disruption to their classes? Do teachers feel that the learning experience of other students is diminished by the disruption? No, of course not. Those questions never occur to the T-D.

How many hours of classroom time — in effect, stolen from students who want to learn — does a student have to disrupt before getting suspended? How many hours of classroom time in total have been lost due to misbehaving students? No one measures those numbers and the T-D does not think to ask.

What has been the impact of the Henrico public school policy aimed at reducing the number of suspensions? Has the number of disruptive incidents declined as well, or are school administrators simply tolerating more ill discipline in order to reduce the number of suspensions ? What has been the impact on academic achievement of Henrico school kids — in particular, what has been the impact on schools where the most incidents and suspensions occur? Is it possible that the crackdown on suspensions has led to an increase in the level of disruptive behavior that has had a deleterious impact on learning? And, if such a perverse consequence has arisen from the policy, to what extent have African-American students been the victims of it?

Henrico public schools do not measure the data needed to answer such questions, or, if they do, the T-D does not think to ask for it. Therefore, readers are left with the impression that the Henrico County Public Schools are likely discriminating against African-American students. Perhaps they are. But the case is far from proven. For all we know, the failure to discipline disruptive kids is discriminating against African-American students. Maybe in an alternate universe, an alternate Times-Dispatch is telling that story.

My Drive Through Two West Virginias

A natural gas well fire in nothern West Virginia

A natural gas well fire in northern West Virginia

 By Peter Galuszka

It was a biting eight degrees when I hit the road in Beckley, W.Va. last Wednesday morning having held a book signing and given a talk in Charleston the night before.

I wanted to drive two hours up to Harrison County, where my family lived from 1962 to 1969, and see what had changed. I hadn’t been there in a few years.

Harrison and neighboring counties Doddridge and Lewis had long been coalfield areas along with natural gas. Coal had pretty much played out after the 1980s but there are still some big mines. Its real claim to fame is the underground rock formation ideal for glass-making. In the 1890s, it had attracted hundreds of craftsmen from Italy who made Clarksburg an important glass center and home to the locally-famous “Pepperoni Roll” – a small loaf of bread with a long stick of pepperoni inside.

As I drove up Interstate 79, I noticed the first signs of the area’s most recent transformation. There were plenty of oversized truck rigs with oddly-shaped machines. A number carried long steel pipes.

When I drove on familiar roads, I noticed that small lots that might have stored strip coal mine gear were all now filled with bright-orange wellheads. Davisson Run, a small creek where we used to hunt for frogs, is now near a large new building for Dominion Transmission — yes, that Dominion based in Richmond — which plans a $5 billion natural gas pipeline from the area through Virginia and North Carolina.

Welcome to Fracking Central. This part of northern West Virginia is booming thanks the Marcellus Shale formation rich with hard-to-get natural gas. In just a few years, hydraulic fracking, using high pressure water and powerful chemicals to fracture underground gas pockets and pump them out, has revolutionized the U.S. energy industry.

My mission (which failed) was to find a woman living in a rural house in the rolling hills and dairy farms of western Harrison County. She had been on YouTube two years ago complaining how her neighbor had sold gas rights and turned pleasant pastureland into an obnoxious industrial site with all-night floodlights and diesel generators roaring 24/7. Huge trucks carrying water for high pressure injection clogged narrow county roads.

I drove through Salem, a tiny college town, and noticed signs reading “Antero Resources” that reminded truck drivers supplying rigs to drive slowly and not to “Jake Brake” – use brakes on some trucks that make a loud, machine gun sound as they tap engine exhaust to slow down.

Antero Resources was a big clue. They are an independent gas and oil firm based in Denver that has hit the fracking craze in a big way. They have rights to something like 384,000 acres of gasland in the surrounding area. Having gone public only recently, the company has revenues that have zoomed from $195 million in 2011 to $259 million in 2012 to $689 million last year.

Antero has had its problems. In July 2013, “flowback” material from a Doddridge Count well exploded, badly burning five workers and killing two. Earlier this year, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection issued a case operations order to Antero because of tank ruptures. The firm has also been accused of released methane into the private wells of 12 individuals.

I couldn’t find out if some are enjoying the economic benefits of fracking. One reads of people suddenly drawing $1 million a year in royalties. I did notice was that there was a lot more drilling support activity and more shopping malls.

My road trip was in marked contrast to one I had taken the day before in the southern part of West Virginia.

Upper Big Branch memorial in Whitesville

Upper Big Branch memorial in Whitesville

I was on my way to give a talk in Charleston about the paperback edition of my book “Thunder on the Mountain: Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal.” I had the time so I chose to head up fateful Route 3 through the Coal River Valley where I have spent a lot of time in the past four years.

Route 3 in Raleigh County is a lot different from any road in Harrison County. The peaks are taller, steeper with more distinct hollers. Rock outcrops jam out at you, unlike the gently rolling hills of the north. The late fall sun is dramatically restricted.

This is the road that suddenly became flooded with ambulance and fire trucks on April 5, 2010. A huge explosion at the Upper Big Branch deep mine owned by then-Richmond-based Massey Energy killed 29 miners. Before then, it had been Ground Zero in the environmentalists’ vigorous war against Mountaintop Removal, which is strip mining on an obscenely large scale. Hundreds of feet of mountaintops are lopped off by gigantic drag lines. The leftover dirt and trees are dumped into creek beds destroying habitat.

I headed north along Big Coal River, which is anything but. Its valley provides just enough space for a road and a CSX rail line in some areas. I went past the new Marsh Fork Elementary School that Massey Energy was forced to build to replace one a few miles away that was threatened by its mine operations.

There was Jarrett’s store (new sign) where bystanders watched all the police cars and ambulances that fateful April day. Soon, the old Marsh Fork school appears. It had been a focus of yet another battle over coal but today it is abandoned and fenced in. Its playground is close to huge coal storage towers. Soaring above them is an earthen dam holding back a lake with about 3 billion gallons of toxic sludge.

There was very little activity – odd since the coal of the valley is the best in the world. Then it came – Upper Big Branch mine – lifeless. It was sealed after the disaster. Past roads with signs reading “Ambulance entrance” there was the portal where the UBB miners came and went. There is a lonely memorial of 29 black helmets at the base of a steel tower. Another memorial to them is a few miles north at Whitesville – a classic coal town filled with empty stores, although the florist shop is still busy.

No coal trucks, no pickups, for miles. The only activity was at the Elk Run deep mine at the very top of Route 3.

Why? One reason is that fracked natural gas from Harrison County and its region is stealing electric utility market share away from coal.

The other reason is Asia’s economic slowdown. Coal River and UBB provide metallurgical coal used for export to smelt steel in foreign mills. (They don’t anything to do with “Keeping Our Lights On” as the pro-coal propagandists say.) Met coal can be enormously lucrative but its prices are down two thirds from three years ago.

That’s bad news for Bristol-based Alpha Natural Resources, which bought out Massey for $7 billion after the disaster. Alpha is in such bad straits that hedge funds are lining its stock up for shorting trades, according to this morning’s Wall Street Journal.

Well, that’s my road trip. Not to worry, though, I’ll be back soon. The criminal trial of Donald L. Blankenship, former Massey CEO and otherwise known as “The Dark Lord of the Coalfields,” starts Jan. 26 in U.S. District Court in Beckley.

Racial Disparities in SOL Pass Rates Getting Worse

Bacon’s Rebellionmath_data
More SOL data from Lynchburg numbers cruncher Jim Weigand… The chart above expresses the Standards of Learning (SOL) pass rate for blacks and Hispanics as a percentage of the pass rate for whites between 2005 and 2014. The good news is that blacks and Hispanics consistently improved their educational performance through 2010, with Hispanics passing at 90% of the rate as whites in that year.

Then something happened. Minority SOL pass rates tanked. White pass rates declined (a trend not reflected in these charts) but minority pass rates fell even steeper. What happened in that period? Weigand notes that downturn coincides with tighter standards for the math SOLs  in 2012 and for the English SOLs in 2013. The impact of more demanding math tests can be seen in this chart:

SOL_data

 

Virginia school systems have made tremendous efforts to help minority students reach educational parity with whites (and Asians, who out-perform whites). But these charts call into question the effectiveness of those efforts.

If the tests were harder, then why weren’t all groups effected equally? Why did black and Hispanic scores decline relative to white scores? One possible explanation is that minority students are enrolled disproportionately in classes that “teach to the test.” Teachers in these classes got better at instructing their students to answer the kinds of questions that appear in SOL tests. (An analogy: My son is taking an AP course that explicitly, no-bones-about-it, is geared to helping students answer the kinds of questions that appear in AP tests.) But teaching to the test has a big drawback. Make the test tougher, and it doesn’t work.

Just a theory. It doesn’t fit the data perfectly. Perhaps readers can help me refine the theory or present better ones of their own.

Update: At the suggestion of Don Rippert, Jim Wiegand portrayed the same data as the chart above in a different way. Here’s the raw data for each ethnic/racial group, not normalized to whites as above. This shows clearly that whites suffered a decline in SOL pass rates, too.

SOL_pass_rates

Update: These numbers may be skewed by changes in Department of Education questionnaires that allowed students to select more than one race, says Hamilton Lombard with the Tayloe Murphy Center for Public Policy. As a result, for instance, the number of students identifying only as black dropped by 20% to 30% in some divisions. “With the changes, the SOL results by race are really for different populations in 2010 and 2012,” he writes.

– JAB

Chart of the Day: Whom to Blame for Tuition Increases?

Statewide tuition increases at Virginia public universities, FY 1998 to FY 2012. Image credit: JLARC

Statewide tuition increases at Virginia public universities, adjusted for inflation, FY 1998 to FY 2012. Image credit: JLARC

At last, an answer to a question that I have frequently posed on this blog: To what extent can tuition increases at Virginia public universities be blamed on a decline in state support for higher education? According to a new analysis by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC): about 68%.

The decline in state support doe not account, however, for the surge in student fees, which cover athletics and ancillary programs, or room and board. How much did declining state support account for the total cost of a residential college education? JLARC didn’t ask that question, but a reasonable estimate is about half.

Bacon’s bottom line: Colleges and universities have a legitimate point when they blame the escalating cost of higher education on lower state support. But they also should shoulder as much of the blame themselves, something they have been exceedingly reluctant to do.

ALEC: Virginia K-12 Performance, Policy Mediocre

Image credit: ALEC

Image credit: ALEC

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization promoting conservative legislation at the state level, has issued its 19th annual Report Card on American Education, and it places Virginia in the muddled middle for school performance and policy.

On performance, ALEC gave Virginia a 26th ranking based on the gains made by low-income students on 4th and 8th grade reading and math exams between 2003 and 2013. On the policy front, ALEC graded Virginia an F for its pitiful charter school laws and a D for state academic standards but a B- for digital learning and a B for retaining effective teachers. All other categories rated in the C range. (See Virginia score card.)

ALEC deems Indiana to have the best K-12 public policy in the United States. Among other virtues, the Hoosier state is emphasizing career and vocational education for non college-bound students and provides targeted pre-school programs for disadvantaged children. The report also singles out North Carolina for its aggressive school reforms, especially the emphasis on expanding charter schools and school choice for lower-income Tarheels.

The report’s conclusion:

Economically disadvantaged inner-city children would face more than enough challenges in life it they had abundant access to the nation’s most effective schools. Instead, we find districts still largely wedded to unionized industrial factory models. Spending is up, but low achievement remains common. Dropout rates remain high, and waiting lists at the still far-too-scarce high-quality charter schools remain long. Policymakers have been making changes and showing progress with them, but the average urban student may have yet to notice that anything has changed.

Bacon’s bottom line: Conservatives have a great story to pitch for school reform. While liberals wed themselves to the tired, old 19th-century industrial model and call for mo’ money, mo’ money, conservatives argue that money isn’t the problem. The United States spends more money per student on education than almost any country on the planet, with precious little to show for it. With state, local and federal governments strapped for cash, states need to focus on getting more from the ample investment we already make.

Every other segment of the American economy has restructured over the past half century. Education is the main holdout. Parents — especially parents in lower-income families — need more options about where to send their kids. Virginia needs more charter schools, more school choice and more home schooling.

– JAB

Student Victimization… Down, Down, Down

victimization

The phenomenon of students arrested for school offenses in Henrico County (addressed in a recent post, “Spotlighting the Wrong Victims“) is national in scope. Nationally, 260,000 students were reported to law enforcement by schools in 2012, according to an article in today’s Wall Street Journal.

As in Henrico County, there are concerns that African-American students are arrested at disproportionately higher rates than white students. But there are a myriad of other issues, such as the arrest of students under “zero tolerance” policies for trivial offenses, such as a chemistry experiment gone bad (“discharging a destructive device”) or unwittingly carrying a pen knife to school.

Noted but downplayed in the article is another startling fact. Since the implementation of zero-tolerance policies in the 1990s, the rate of victimization per 1,000 students aged 12-18 fell from 181 to 52 between 1994 and 2012. Supporters of zero-tolerance policies cite those numbers as evidence that the school-yard version of the “broken windows” approach to crime — cracking down on minor offenses before they give rise to more serious ones — has been effective.

Invariably, zero-tolerance policies lead to some absurd actions. We’ve all heard the horror stories of kids suspended from school for bringing toy guns to school, drawing pictures of guns or even making pretend guns with their fingers. Undoubtedly, some kids are punished unfairly. As we all know, the criminal justice system isn’t perfect. But cutting school crimes by more than two-thirds over twenty years is no mean achievement. For every child suspended or arrested for a ludicrous offense, literally hundreds fewer children are victimized by their peers.

While the students receiving the harsh sanctions of suspension or arrest are disproportionately African-American, there is evidence in the Henrico County numbers that the victims of their misdeeds are African-American as well. Last year, 84% of the African-American kids arrested for school offenses attended Henrico, Highland Springs or Varina High Schools, all of which have overwhelmingly black enrollment. There is no way to avoid the conclusion that the victims of disruptive behavior — whether assault, theft or the interruption of teaching in the classroom — were black as well.

That’s not to say that the existing system can’t be improved upon. I’m sure it can. But let’s not go overboard in correcting perceived excesses. The last thing we want is for schools to return to the “blackboard jungle” days of yore. Every kid deserves a chance to get an education from from the disruption and intimidation of their peers.

– JAB

The Forbidden City Comes to Virginia

forbidden cityBy Peter Galuszka

The Forbidden City has come to Virginia and it’s definitely worth a look.

Rarely-seen works from the Palace Museum in Beijing’s Forbidden City, the imperial residence of Chinese emperors from the Ming to the end of the Qing Dynasty (roughly from about 1406 to 1912) go on display tomorrow at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art in Richmond.

Putting the exhibits together took lots of work and diplomacy, VMFA Alex Nygeres told guests and the news media Wednesday at a morning event. There were plenty of visits back and forth and there are plans for the VMFA to reciprocate by sending its famed Faberge Egg exhibit from the Russian Romanov era to China. The Ambassador from the People’s Republic of China to the U.S. attended a gala, $10,000 a table event the evening of Oct. 14.

I’m no expert of Chinese art, but the exhibit was highly impressive. The many works included court paintings, religious artifacts and costumes, including an early form of body armor for soldiers which consisted of layers of tough cloth protecting vital organs and appendages.

The exhibit opens at a time of unsettled relations between the U.S. and the People’s Republic. China has been torn by pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. Workers’ expectations are rising as China’s economy is slowing. Beijing is becoming more aggressive as a regional military power and its efforts to censor Web-based information and launch cyber spying are worrisome.

Another issue is that given the tough, expansionist diplomacy of Russia’s Vladimir Putin and the negative reaction from the West, Moscow is looking for more links with China. Relations between the two have always been up and down. Not that long ago, experts believed that if there were a nuclear weapons attacks, it might occur between those two countries. Now, peace has returned and both may be able to exploit their close geography and relative strengths in energy and population in a way based on economics and not Communist ideology.

On the bright side, China does have money and is fast developing expertise. China’s Shandong Tranlin paper company is investing $2 billion in a modern paper plant in eastern Chesterfield County that will employ 2,000. It won’t use trees, but leftovers from farm fields and is supposed to be less polluting than paper mills most Americans are familiar with. What’s more, Gov. Terry McAuliffe is off on a trade mission to China in a few days.

In any event, the Forbidden City is worth a look. It runs until Jan. 11.

Why We’re Being Railroaded On “STEM”

 csx engineBy Peter Galuszka

When it comes to education, a constant mantra chanted by the Virginia chattering class is “STEM.”

How many times have you heard that our students are far behind in “STEM” (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics)? We have to drain funding from more traditional areas of study (that actually might make them better human beings like literature, art or history) and give it to STEM. The two types of popular STEM are, of course, computer science (we’re all “illiterate” claims one journalist-turned computer science advocate) and biotechnology.

But how important is STEM, really? And if Virginia joins the STEM parade and puts all of its eggs in that basket, will the jobs actually be there?

The fact of the matter is that we don’t know what jobs will be around in the future and like the famous generals planning for the last war, we may be stuck planning for the digital explosion of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs that is like, so, 25 years ago.

To get an idea where markets may be, look at today’s news. Canadian Pacific is making a play for CSX railroad (headquartered in Richmond not that long ago) because of the unexpected explosion in fracked oil.

CP handles a lot of freight in the western part of Canada and U.S. where some of the most impressive new fracked shale oil are, namely the Bakken fields of North Dakota and Alberta. CP wants access to eastern U.S. refineries and transshipping points, such as a transloading spot at the mouth of the York River. CSX is stuck with dirty old coal where production and exports are down, although it has an extensive rail network in the Old Dominion.

The combined market value of the two firms is $62 billion — a far bigger potential deal than the $26 billion Warren Buffett paid for Burlington Northern Sante Fe in 2010. There are problems, to be sure. CSX isn’t interested and the Surface Transportation Board, a federal entity, nixed a matchup of Canadian National and Burlington a little while back.

But this isn’t really the point. The point is that the Old Steel Rail pushed by new sources of oil and to some extent natural gas has surprisingly turned domestic economics upside down. Many of the new oil fields are in places where there are not pipelines, so rail is the only answer. In 2008, according to the Wall Street Journal, six or so American railroads generated $25.8 million in hauling crude oil. Last year that shot up to $2.15 billion.

So, what does that mean for students? A lot actually, especially when we blather on about old-style STEM that might have them inventing yet another cell-phone app that has a half-life of maybe a few months. Doesn’t matter, every Virginia legislator, economic development official and education advocate seems to be hypnotized by the STEM genie.

A piece I just did for the up-and-coming Chesterfield Observer on vocation education in that county:

“The recent push to educate students in so-called STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) may be case in point. The goal is to churn out bright, highly trained young people able to compete in the global economy with their counterparts from foreign lands.

“A subset of this area of concentration is computer science, which goes beyond knowing the basics and gets into the nitty-gritty of learning code and writing computer languages. By some accounts, such skills will be necessary to fill more than 2 million jobs expected to become open in the state by 2020.

“Critics question, however, if overspecialization in technology at earlier ages prevents students from exploring studies such as art and literature that might make them better rounded adults. And, specialization often assumes that jobs will be waiting after high school and college when they might not be.

“Peter Cappelli, a professor of management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, has written about such problems of academic overspecialization in national publications such as The Wall Street Journal. He recently responded to questions from the Chesterfield Observer via email.”

“Not many science grads are getting jobs in their field,” Cappelli says. “The evidence suggests that about two thirds of the IT (information technology) grads got jobs in their fields, about the same for engineering. There is no guarantee in those fields. It’s all about hitting the appropriate subspecialty that happens to be hot. There are still lots of unemployed engineers and IT people.”

So there you have it. In my opinion, the over-emphasis on STEM training has the unfortunate effect of producing young adults who have one goal in mind – getting a job and making money, not helping humankind. And, if you insist on STEM, why not branch into something where there are actually jobs namely petroleum engineering, geology and transportation engineering.

I’ll leave the dangers of added petroleum cargoes in trains to another post.