Math, the pandemic, and the metric system

Masks and social distancing are the current way of the world. Photo source: Pixabay.

Schools are back in session—both in person and remotely (due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the necessary social distancing). And while the long-term effects of what this will do to our elementary-children’s education is still up in the air, there is a way to make math education easier: stop teaching U.S. customary and metric units in favor of the metric system alone.

Common Core Standards Revisited

Common Core Standards were an attempt to get some uniform education goals implemented across the country for Language Arts and Mathematics. Problematically, states are allowed to teach whatever subjects they want whenever they want to teach them. To make my point in an exaggerated way—one state could teach pre-calculus in kindergarten while another could opt to only teach the alphabet all the way through high school. While it’s not that bad, there really were/are not unified standards. Common core attempted to remedy that at a grassroots level. (More from me here.) Of course, while several states refused to adopt the Common Core, a majority of states and territories continue to use them. Here is the current situation today from the Common Core website.

States that do and don’t use Common Core standards.

Common Core and math

Common Core math standards calls for teaching U.S. customary and metric units side by side in grades 2, 3, 4, and, 5 under the category of “Measurement & Data.”

For instance, in grade 2, the standards state:

Measure the length of an object by selecting and using appropriate tools such as rulers, yardsticks, meter sticks, and measuring tapes. (CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.2.MD.A.1)

For grade 5, they include:

Convert among different-sized standard measurement units within a given measurement system (e.g., convert 5 cm to 0.05 m), and use these conversions in solving multi-step, real world problems. (CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.5.MD.A.1)

Why teach everything in the graphic below when we could only need to teach the units on the right? It’s the “right” way to go.

We should teach only the easy half of this diagram. And these are just volume measures. Lengths are a whole other graphic.

By teaching the two sets of units at the same time, we are not doing our children any favors. Given the math and science test scores in this country, wasting time teaching an efficient set of units plus our clumsy, complicated ones is, at best a disservice, and during times like these, a potential travesty.

Our most recent Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores

The PISA scores are a worldwide measure of areas of learning across the globe, which include math and science. The most recent PISA scores were released in December 2019. The news regarding mathematical progress for U.S. students is not promising.

The data was collected from about 600,000 students in 79 countries and economies and is administered by the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation. The bottom line for the U.S.? I think the accompanying title of an early 2020 USA Today article pretty well sums it up:

To be fair, this article says we stress teaching process ahead of logic but it could just as easily be about teaching two measurement systems at once.

Our PISA scores

Overall, the mean score was 492 for math across all countries, while the U.S. scored 485. So, not only did the U.S. score near the middle of pack, it scored less than the mean.

In contrast, Japanese boys scored 532, and Korea’s scored 528 so the U.S. scored around 50 points less than those countries!

This image shows just how underperforming we are.

(Data released December 2019) I added the highlight to show just how far behind we are. https://www.oecd.org/pisa/PISA%202018%20Insights%20and%20Interpretations%20FINAL%20PDF.pdf

Why are faltering math scores a big deal?

One issue is income. The highest paying jobs all require proficiency at numbers, whether they are for doctors or CEOs. Math skills are a must. And according to Investopedia, the highest paying occupations in the U.S. for 2019 were predominately centered around healthcare jobs—such jobs all requires not only math but fluency with the metric system.

As I’ve pointed out before (2013 post), it not so much that our country’s math scores are getting worse, it’s that other countries are surpassing us.

Our flat scores in the area of math are, in fact, putting us behind.

We can do something about this. Advocate teaching only metric units in our schools.

You can start that ball rolling by responding to the following. To make easier, I’ve put together a draft that you can cut and paste or modify as works for you, but please help. I’ve referenced sources to keep everything transparent.

Action: Notice of Request for Information on STEM Education

On behalf of the National Science and Technology Council’s (NSTC’s) Committee on STEM Education (CoSTEM) and in coordination with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), the National Science Foundation (NSF) requests input related to the implementation of the Federal STEM Education Strategic Plan, “Charting a Course For Success: America’s Strategy for STEM Education.”

DATES: Interested persons are invited to submit comments on or before 11:59 p.m. ET, October 19, 2020.

ADDRESSES:
Comments submitted in response to this notice may be submitted online to: CoSTEM@nsf.gov. Email submissions should be machine-readable [PDF, Word] and not copy-protected. Submissions in the subject line of the email message should include “Individual/Organization Name: STEM RFI Response” (e.g., Johnson High School: STEM RFI Response).

You can view the notice here: https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2020/09/04/2020-19681/notice-of-request-for-information-on-stem-education

Here is a draft response to get you started on a comment. Feel free to adapt.

THANKS!

My radio interview on the metric system

A few months I had an interview about the metric system with a local public radio station KSFR in Santa Fe.

The interview was performed by Carly Newfeld as part of her program “The Last Word.” It runs about 23 minutes and you can listen to it here: http://traffic.libsyn.com/thelastword/lw022020.mp3?dest-id=351241

Apparently, it’s still being played so I don’t think this notice is too out of date.

Sorry, this post is long but there was a lot to share.

As usual, your comments are noticed and appreciated.

Linda

(P.S. Happy birthday Peter G.)

Medicine and the Metric System, Part 2

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According to WebMD “Based on calls made to poison control centers in 2010, pain relievers — both prescription and over-the-counter — accounted for 31% of fatal poisonings in children age 5 and under.”

(A previous post I wrote on the metric system and medicine is here. Hence, this is Part 2.)

When I was interviewed by Vox News for a podcast last month, I mentioned a recent recall involving confused unit dosing. I’d like to explore that issue in more depth this month.

August 2018 recall of children’s liquid medicine

A news release issued by the Pfizer Inc. on August 27, 2018, began with the following sentence:

Pfizer Consumer Healthcare, a division of Pfizer Inc., is voluntarily recalling one lot of Children’s Advil® Suspension Bubble Gum Flavored 4 FL OZ Bottle because of customer complaints that the dosage cup provided is marked in teaspoons and the instructions on the label are described in milliliters (mL).

Let’s take a closer look that. What that means is that if someone was paying attention to the number of units and not the units themselves (teaspoons vs. milliliters) — and why wouldn’t everyone expect consistency between the two? —that person could have given their child a significant overdose all the while thinking that they were following the directions.

As the Food and Drug Administration noted:

Pfizer concluded that the use of the product with an unmatched dosage cup marked in teaspoons rather than milliliters has a chance of being associated with potential overdose.

That is putting it mildly. Since there are roughly 5 mL in a teaspoon, giving the smallest dose in teaspoons could result in administering a whopping 20 mL more than prescribed. For a 72-95 pound 11-year-old child, the error compounds to an overdose of 60 mL when only a 15 mL dose was intended!

While not necessarily deadly, the recalls note that “The most common symptoms associated with ibuprofen overdose include nausea, vomiting, headache, drowsiness, blurred vision and dizziness.”

I’m not a doctor, but I image the reactions could be worse for a small child whose health was compromised before the overdose was innocently administered by a caregiver.

We’re just not moving quickly enough to remove such errors from our medical system. As noted by the Institute for Safe Medication Practices in 2015:

While progress is being made in hospitals in regards to prescribing liquids in mL, many hospitals still use dosing devices that have household measures (e.g., teaspoonful, dessertspoonful, tablespoonful) and, as above, even drams and ounces. This sets healthcare professionals up to fail because the dosage scales on embossed cups are difficult to read, have dangerous abbreviations that are easily confused (e.g., TBS and TSP), and measures that are no longer used (e.g., drams). .

It’s easy enough to make mistakes moving between U.S. customary and metric units without having organizations responsible for our over-the-counter medicines layering on their own errors that might be difficult to immediately perceive.

But changing to the metric system will cost money, I hear some cry

One of the pushbacks I’ve gotten over the years is that it would cost money to switch to the metric system. Let’s take a second and consider the cost of a recall such as the one cited here.

According to Investopedia:

Though insurance may cover a minimal amount to replace defective products, a majority of product recalls result in lawsuits. Between lost sales, replacement costs, government sanctions, and lawsuits, a significant recall can become a multi-billion dollar ordeal. For multi-billion dollar companies, an expensive short-term loss can be easily overcome, but when shareholders and customers lose confidence, there may be greater long-term effects such as plummeting stock prices.

The bottom line: This recall of children’s medicine could have been completely avoided if we weren’t constantly juggling multiple measurement systems in this country.

I’m not saying that using one set of units would solve all problems. After all, it’s still possible a company could put out dosing instruction that contained a typo (or a host of other problems), but let’s do what we can to try to remove easily avoidable errors from the system.

Cost of a recall?

Based on some research I did, it sounds like an average recall cost is over $10 million dollars in direct costs (pulling product off the shelves, etc), while indirect costs (lawsuits, fines, and customer avoidance, stock price, harm to reputation) can mount for years after the recall.

That’s something to highlight when talking about using consistent measures and the cost to implement them.

Thanks for getting this far!

Linda

Some resources on the cost of recalls:

https://roadscholar.com/blog/how-much-do-product-recalls-really-cost
https://www.foodsafetymagazine.com/magazine-archive1/junejuly-2018/the-costs-of-foodborne-illness-product-recalls-make-the-case-for-food-safety-investments/