Shortchanging American Children with Our Measurement System

While over the past year I’ve looked at metric adoption from a number of angles, the thing I keep coming back to again and again is how we’re shortchanging our children. Granted, my own daughter is almost 25 years old now so my own progeny concerns me less than our children as a whole and the generations that will follow them.

Students in the Lab with metric beaker

Metric units are used internationally for science

We are doing them a huge disservice every year that we continue to use U.S. customary units (for those new to this blog, we imported imperial units and then futzed with them so they no longer align with any other country in the world) in our education system. Metric units were designed to work together in very logical ways rather than the hodgepodge of units that make up our current measures.

Right now we teach our children both U.S. customary and metric units and under the new Common Core Standards (talked about this in a previous blog) measurement standards are dropped from the curriculum once students hit sixth grade. Still, every minute our customary units are taught in school is a minute wasted and that time would be better spent on other subjects. And every minute that metric units get second billing to U.S. customary units means that we’re ill preparing our children for careers in science, medicine and any activity that will take them out of the country or deal with others internationally.

Increasingly our children will study abroad—but they won’t know the measures used almost everywhere else in the world.

In fact, our children are less likely to stay within our borders during their education than at any point in our history and, according to the U.S. Department of Education,

Over 80,000 Americans study abroad at the college or university level each academic year. The number of U.S. students going abroad has increased by about two percent annually over recent years, and this type of study opportunity is now an established part of American academic life.

Of course, the minute most of our students hit the ground in another country they face an additional hurdle beyond language and culture: lack of familiarity with the metric system that almost everyone else uses. Luckily, the metric system is easy to learn but why make our children have to learn one more thing on the fly when they shouldn’t have to.

In fact, within the first month on this project I was flying to Washington, D.C. to visit friends and begin my research when I happened to sit next to a middle-school math teacher (one of many coincidences I’ve encountered on this project but that’s another blog).

She basically said that her students didn’t think it was a good use of their time to learn the metric system because they’d never use it again. She also said her counterargument was that it was like learning a second language and it might come in handy since other people use it.

Even as early as I was in this project, I offered her the following counterargument to use instead…

Sure, you don’t need to learn the metric system if you:

  • Never plan to leave the country;
  • Don’t plan on a well-paying job in science or technology;
  • Don’t plan on a well-paying job in medicine;
  • Don’t plan on doing anything associated with international trade (including manufacturing and distribution).

Students arriving here will have difficulty learning our illogical measurement system

Not only does our metric adoption hang up our students leaving the country, it also hangs up students coming to our country to study here and they mean big economic business:

(July 13, 2013) Association of International Educators released new economic data today showing that the 764,495 international students studying across the United States supported nearly 300,000 jobs and contributed $21.8 billion to the U.S. economy in the 2011-2012 academic year. Further analysis shows that for every 7 enrolled international students, 3 U.S. jobs are created or supported by spending in the following sectors: higher education, accommodation, dining, retail, transportation, telecommunications, and health insurance. 

International students must start scratching their heads almost the minute they arrive here because they’ve never encountered a system as messed up as ours. “Wait,” I imagine them saying to themselves, “I thought this country was advanced.”

While I’m not suggesting that students wouldn’t come here to study because we don’t use the metric system, it just makes it more difficult for them than it needs to be. International tourism is also one of the reasons Hawaii has considered adoption of the metric system to make it easier for travelers to get around once they arrive. To me, that just adds one more reason to change over to the metric system.

Those with our children’s interests at the forefront will assist with metric adoption

As this movement progresses, it will very important to let parents, grandparents, guardians, etc. know the disservice we’re doing to our current and future generations by clinging to our outmoded ways. Riled parents would probably be one of the most effective ways to give this movement some momentum—but they need to understand the issue first—something I’m hoping to help with.

Let’s give our kids a break and provide them with the best system available and help prepare them for today’s world—it’s the least they deserve from us even if the switchover will take a bit of effort on our part.


10 thoughts on “Shortchanging American Children with Our Measurement System

  1. I remember meeting an American elementary school teacher working in Australia on an exchange programme in the 1980’s. He told me that living in Australia gave him a chance to use the metric system in practice whereas it had just been an abstract notion in the US.

    • I think Americans who visit countries where English is not natively spoken may not be aware of the use of the metric system due to not understanding the native language, but become frustrated when encountering English native speakers who don’t understand or struggle with non-metric units.

      Coming to a country like Australia may be a paradise for an American metric supporter, but a living hell for the average American visitor left on their own. I believe that most Americans have deluded themselves into believing that the metric system was created by France to irritate the US and most people in the world secretly understand USC and are only forced to use metric against their will by totalitarian governments, but in private conversations outside of government ears they use non-metric.

      It would be interesting for an Australian to comment on an encounter with an American visitor who is frustrated by native English speakers whose knowledge of USC is near zero.

  2. Hi Linda .. Thank you for another informative, and interesting article.

    You have raised an issue, which I believe is fundamental, to changing metric measures, from a secondary system of measurement, to a primary system of measurement in the US.

    We must always keep in mind that the ultimate goal of metrication is to have almost everyone “think in metric”. That is “think in metric with no conversions to any other units of measure”. Only when we “think in metric” are the full advantages of the metric system realised.

    I don’t reside in the US, so I’m not fully familiar with the US school education system, but I believe the following to be true.

    Almost all children, in elementary schools throughout the US, have no choice or option, but to learn USC, before they ever know anything about metric measures, or the metric system. USC is their native structure of measurements.

    That in effect makes USC mandatory, although it may not be mandatory by law.

    The education system makes children, “think in USC”, before they learn metric measures. The result is that chilldren, and when they become adults, have to think through messy conversions, when using metric measures. Conversions are a barrier, that makes metric difficult and unpopular, if a child or adult “thinks in USC”.
    Only when this situation is reversed, and children learn metric measures, as the first system of measurement, will metric become their native system of measurement, and they “think in metric”, and metric used, and better understood, then USC will become unpopular because conversions will be required to convert from metric to USC.
    For any real change to metric measures, by the US general public, the education system must make metric measures mandatory, and set it as the first system of measurement.

  3. Pingback: Linda’s Series of Fortunate Events* | More Than A Mile Behind: America and the Metric System

  4. Hello, I am glad I found your blog! As a biologist, I think that it’s very important for Americans to be familiar with metric before attending university, and I hope to do something about it. I am trying to devise educational programs that could be instituted at colleges and universities (at first) in order to make metric units the standard among Americans. I would greatly appreciate it if you could direct me to any information that would help (I am following the responses to this comment, and would be happy to communicate by email if I could find your address).

    Here are some of my questions:
    1) Do you have any information about how much time is spent teaching metric in university science classes? My guess is that every student in an intro science class gets set back by a week because of the need to become fluent in metric. We should be using this time to teach advanced science, and instead we’re teaching kids things that they could have learned when they were 10 years old.
    2) Do you know if difficulty with metric contributes to students dropping out of science programs? There must be some explanation for why so many smart students prefer finance over science.
    3) Do you know of any educational programs that were effective at making people fluent in metric, to the point that they would be comfortable using it (and might even demand that public agencies switch to using metric)? I’m looking for something that could be initiated by scientists and educational institutions.


  5. I work in a scientific field and we use the metric system. I am not a proponent of force feeding the metric system only but I believe our children should have an understanding of it. For you who say its easier to work with, all I have to say is that units are units. Its really no more difficult to work in USC than in metric. I learned both when I was a child and could fluently move between them. I think you all should give children more credit for their abilities instead of assuming they will not be able to cope with using either units in the real world.

    • Kids (I was a kid once, and was taught the SI at the dawn of the major push in the 70’s) may learn something more easily than adults, but there’s zero retention unless there’s real world practice. It comes down to this – pick ONE system and stick with it and by the looks of the rest of global humanity, there is no immediate need to teach anything but the SI. There really is no need for quarts, pints, gallons, cups and teaspoons anymore – except to frustratingly differentiate ourselves in a boorish way to the rest of the globe. I really don’t know when it was accepted as fact that somehow we’ve tied the olde English system to our cultural identity. How did that happen? You mention “going metric” to an American and they think you’re trying to rip their baby from their arms. Why? Can someone explain the mentality? Why were we ok when the rest of the world favored olde English units before the worldwide metric upgrade? We weren’t “different” then!

    • What is astounding to me is that every American has been using the metric system their entire life. American currency is 100% metric. Has been since our founding. We actually influenced many other nations to embrace a metric currency system. Why do we struggle with embracing the SI? Why were we ok with it when the rest of the world favored the olde English system before the metric upgrade but now we all grumble at the thought of going metric? Any psychologists here to help explain?

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