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.