Behind the Blackboard: Metric column draws negative feedback

Rick Wagner • Apr 3, 2017 at 7:30 PM

Well, maybe I’ve finally made it as a columnist/blogger. I got my first negative feedback.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve received many a negative phone call and email, along with a few handwritten letters, critical of my writings as a journalist over the years. But back on the afternoon of Nov. 9, I got my first negative column feedback, and it was directed toward my Nov. 8 piece on the metric system, more particularly on the failure of the Untied States to embrace and adopt the metric system as proposed and planned when I was a teenager.

“Dear Mr Wagner,

“As you are an education writer you might be interested in educating yourself about the metric system and its history. First, you should read an actual critique of Whatever Happened to The Metric System. But before you do that, you should contemplate the fact that every citizen in the US shells out about $16 per day because we don’t have the metric system. A simple change to metric construction would save a lot of wasted money. A study done sometime back by the Swedes indicated that about 98,000 people die in our healthcare system as a direct result of our lack of metric. You can find out about this problem here. Of course you could learn about metrication initiatives in the early 20th century, and metric hearings in 1921 and what actually happened in 1975, but apparently did not seek out the historical information. Your explanation only repeats reverberated memes and folklore and does not address any actual history.

“If reading all of these essays is a bit much, then please consider watching my Nerd Nite video and you will not be burdened with prose or a long lecture.

“Best Wishes,

“Randy Bancroft P.E. (aka The Metric Maven)”

You can judge Mr. Bancroft’s arguments for yourself or engage him in conversation by emailing maven@themetricmaven.com. He makes some interesting points, although the fact remains that the United States has adopted only portions of the metric system as a practical matter.

However, all this got me wondering what our children are taught in school regarding the metric system. So I asked Robin McClellan, supervisor of elementary education in Sullivan County Schools, how much metric learning is in elementary school these days.

“In second grade, children explore measurement of length, estimating length, comparing length, and solve word problems involving lengths that are given in the same units ... using both systems of measurement: the metric system and U.S. customary system (USCS),” McClellan said. “In third grade, the learning shifts into liquid measurement, mass, area, and perimeter using both systems of measurement. This focus includes measurement, estimation, calculation (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division) in one-step problems involving liquid measurement, mass, area, and perimeter.” 

By fourth grade, McClellan said, “students are expected to know, understand, and convert relative sizes of measurement (larger units, smaller units, equivalents). Additionally, students are expected to use the four operations (addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division) to measure and analyze distance, time, liquid volume, solid volume, mass, area, and perimeter.”

And in fifth grade math curriculum, she said, “students are to build on prior years’ learning with conversions, multi-step, real world problems. They will continue study of liquid measurement, length, volume (liquid and solid), area, perimeter, and apply their understanding to line plots, formulas, and graphing.”

So, Mr. Bancroft, it sounds like to me that students in Tennessee are getting at least the basics of the metric system in elementary school. Rather than make it an add-on or try to teach it to a generation that was used to feet and inches instead of meters and centimeters, today’s students are learning metric alongside the USCS. If metric ever were to rise up and overtake USCS, such generational knowledge would be essential.

One other thing, though. I still like the term “metrification” instead of “metrication” as the word for changing over to the metric system. It just sounds cooler.

Today’s Lesson: The metric system still has some staunch support, and it is being learned by today’s Tennessee students in elementary school.

Bonus question: What does USCS stand for or mean?

Rick Wagner is an education writer for the Kingsport Times-News and can be reached at rwagner@timesnews.net or (423) 392-1381.