A logical way to improve math scores

I remember, back in 1956 or ‘57, my second-grade teacher explaining how America soon would be adopting the metric system of measurement. More than 50 years later, now a teacher myself, and nearing retirement, I’m still guiding my students through an archaic syllabus of inches (one-twelfth part of the reigning royal foot), ounces (derived from the weight of a kernel of barley), and other disjointed elements of U.S. customary measurement. Glaciers recede, continents drift, and stars run out of fuel at a faster pace than American metrication.

Why do American 15-year-olds rank 15th among nations in math? (www.EDin08.com). It’s not because they (or their teachers) are less intelligent than their international peers, but because Americans tend to associate gallons and miles with apple pie and motherhood, and hence are loathe to let go.

Customary measurement and its partner in crime, mathematical operations using fractions, are like twin 10-pound handicaps hung from the necks of American students. Indeed, the British mathematician and physicist Lord Kelvin, in a lecture delivered in Philadelphia in 1884, described the continuing American and British use of customary measurement as a “wickedly brain destroying piece of bondage” Consider:

1. Teaching two measurement systems is an inefficient use of limited classroom instructional time. American elementary school students must attend to lessons for both customary and metric length, weight and volume. Not so for their European counterparts, who need only learn metric measures, and hence learn them better. Moreover, there is a truly extraordinary bonus to be realized from metrication: Much of the current curriculum involving fraction operations would become irrelevant, like slide rulers upon the advent of hand-held calculators. Never again dreaded word problems like this one involving mixed numbers and fraction division: “Maria has 6 1/2 cups of flour. How many batches of cookies can she bake if each batch requires 1 3/4 cups?”

2. Trying to learn two systems is confusing. A typical measurement instructional unit shifts back and forth between customary and metric systems: ounces and pounds on Monday, grams and kilograms on Tuesday, quarts on Wednesday, liters on Thursday; and so on. It’s like trying to learn algebra using Arabic and Roman numerals on alternating days.

3. The metric system, in which every measure is logically connected, is a great deal easier to digest than U.S. customary measurements. Note the utter coherence: if you build a cube with a side length of 1 centimeter, that cube will hold a volume of 1 milliliter of water, and that water will have a weight of 1 gram. Voila! Moreover, like pennies to dimes to dollars, but unlike inches to feet to yards to miles, all metric expansions are based on easy-to-calculate multiples of 10. Child’s play!

In 1968, Congress authorized a three-year study of the dual-system problem. This led to a recommendation for the United States to transition to metric usage over a 10-year period, which led to the Metric Conversion Act of 1975 and to the establishment of the Metric Conversion Board to direct the transition.

Unfortunately, the act had all the teeth of a barnyard hen: It ignored the proposed 10-year transition goal and made conversion voluntary. According to National Institute of Standards and Technology, the lack of a “clear Congressional mandate” resulted in metrication being “largely ignored by the American public.” The Metric Conversion Board was disbanded in 1982.

Because the federal government abdicated its responsibility, change must be driven from below, and public schools would seem to be a good starting point.

Our state could lead the way with its own 10-year transition plan. Here’s how: Beginning with next year’s kindergarten class, the state would simply delete U.S. customary measurement from the state learning standards, then advance the process one grade level each year. By the time this fortunate group of children reaches high school, they will be metric pros. As with Roman Numerals, customary measures could be taught as a 30-minute lesson every few years, by way of helping kids to appreciate just how much easier they have it than did their forebears.

Richard Slettvet is a special education teacher working in the Edmonds School District.

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