Would Adoption of the Metric System Reverse Our Math and Science Education Decline?

Could full metric system adoption in our schools help our sorry STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) situation by saving time (since we wouldn’t need to teach two unrelated systems) and better ground our students in the language of science and medicine? Something I recently came across certainly seems to indicate it should:

Studies in Great Britain and Australia show that the metric changover in their nations could save a fifth of the time previously spent teaching mathematics. A U.S. government report estimates the time saved in our schools could run from 15 to 25 per cent.1

I’ll do some more research to see if I can find further evidence but, in the meantime, here’s some information from two reports I recently noticed that speak to how other countries are kicking our STEM butt.

American Exceptionalism, American Decline? It would appear so

The first report I came across was American Exceptionalism, American Decline? Research, the Knowledge Economy, and the 21st Century Challenge. It was put out a little less than a year ago by the Task Force on American Innovation. And who are those folks? Here are a few names of the organizations it includes that you might recognize: Google, IBM, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Dow, P&G, Microsoft, American Physical Society, Qualcomm, Intel and the American Institute of Physics.

STEM degrees

One of the organization’s findings. Is it any wonder we’re falling behind with numbers like these?

At a respectable 44 pages long, it covers a number of issues our nation must address but also outlines some of our STEM challenges. The first line of the report reads:

Despite a strong history of being the world leader in research and discovery, the United States has failed to sufficiently heed indications that our advantage is diminishing and that we may soon be overtaken by other nations in these areas, which are critical to economic growth and job creation.

and a few paragraphs later:

First, the stagnation of the American K-12 education system and the inadequate numbers of U.S. students entering the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines are threatening the nation’s ability to recruit, train, and retain the scientists and engineers required to create new products and systems.

The report then elaborates about a lack of national science and engineering support and declining federal funding that is hurting our ability to innovate.

What are the implications of world literacy and numeracy skills?

The second report was OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results for the Survey of Adult Skills. (Where OECD stands for Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Its United States pages are here.)

The report covers 20 countries, including the United States and “directly measures proficiency in several information-processing skills – namely literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environments”  and the implications of those skills, or the lack thereof. At 466 pages, it’s a bit more to go through.

However, its major finding is:

If large proportions of adults have low reading and numeracy skills, introducing and disseminating productivity-improving technologies and work-organisation practices can therefore be hampered… In all countries, individuals with lower proficiency in literacy are more likely than those with better literacy skills to report poor health, to believe that they have little impact on political processes, and not to participate in associative or volunteer activities. In most countries, they are also less likely to trust others.

And this paragraph, I think, points out how poorly we’re doing at keeping up with the rest of the world (emphasis is mine).

In numeracy, the United States performs around the average when comparing the proficiency of 55-65 year-olds, but is lowest in numeracy among all participating countries when comparing proficiency among 16-24 year-olds. This is not necessarily because performance has declined in England/Northern Ireland (UK) or the United States, but because it has risen so much faster in so many other countries across successive generations.

Ranking of numeracy skills

Where our skills (or lack thereof) land us.

We’re finally starting to recognize that we are falling behind in an increasingly technological world. Hopefully we’ll also recognize that metric adoption could assist us halting this  decline.

Thanks for your attention,


1.You and the Metric System, Stover, Allan C. Dodd, Mead & Company, 1974, p. 15.

9 thoughts on “Would Adoption of the Metric System Reverse Our Math and Science Education Decline?

  1. What are your thoughts about a writing campaign to members of these organizations asking to support legislation to complete transition to S I.

  2. As far as I know, American STEM programs go out of their way to avoid the use of the metric system. STEM is not metric friendly as some would have you believe it is.

    • Please list those organizations of which you speak and supply concrete references that are verifiable. I have many positive sources I’ve already listed in this blog that others can check since I include links. Want to give you a chance to back up your assertions with credible sources. Only fair.

      • I don’t recall mentioning any organisations. I commented based on some of the comments I heard from metric supporters who were disappointed because they thought STEM would be natural place to teach metric and it wasn’t happening.

        First of all we have to remember their is no unified educational system in the US. Each local community controls what the scholls in their district are taught. So a STEM school in one town may be very metric friendly and in the next town very much opposed.

        There is also a big difference between teaching metric in the school as a measurement system and teaching it as a conversion system. In one students are taught to work in metric units, in the other students are taught to convert metric to USC and use only USC. It all depends on the teachers themselves. I believe most teachers are metric innumerate and in the teaching of metric it really boils down to the blind leading the blind.

        If you have unrefutable proof that metric is being taught properly in the schools and STEM classes are being taught in SI where the students are SI experts when they leave school, then present it. Don’t hide it.

        From Reddit:

        My high school, somewhere around 2000-2002, conveniently waited until we had used standard measurements all our lives then spent about a week on metric. Everybody (except me!) hated it. They thought it was so hard to move the decimal. After that we never used it in any class ever again.

        Way to go, American education system.


      • You may find the comment by John Steele of particular interest:


        1.) The teachers themselves don’t know metric, so how can they teach it as a measurement system? The only way it is taught then is as a conversion system. When you encounter metric, convert it to USC.

        2.) Yes, John we are doing a poor job at STEM despite the hype on how wonderful it is. Better education is the key, but how do you stop the blind from leading the blind?

  3. Pingback: Could the Metric System Help Our Student Assessments and Education? | More Than A Mile Behind: America and the Metric System

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