Schools Inch Along, Trying to Teach Metrics

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

In many California schools, students use thermometers that show degrees in Celsius as well as Fahrenheit. In many cases, meter sticks have replaced yardsticks, and teachers are likely to chart the growth of their little charges in meters and millimeters.

Despite an overwhelming lack of support from the public at large, the nation’s schools are plugging along in their mission to teach American youngsters the metric system of weights and measures used by practically everyone else on the planet, including the English, who invented the ounces and inches system.

Although American schools enthusiastically embraced metrics after approval of the Metric Conversion Act of 1975, most had to cut back on their expansive plans in the late 1970s because of public hostility.

The metric system is taught in some form in almost all schools, beginning at the elementary level, but some educators say students do not retain what they learn because there is no reinforcement outside the classroom. Moreover, there is some evidence that American children are confused by being taught both systems and, as a result, are proficient in neither. In a 1981 international test of measurement skills, American students finished near the bottom.


“Our public schools went heavily into metrics” after the conversion act was approved, said Lorna Round, assistant superintendent for instruction with the Los Angeles Unified School District. “We all made major investments in metric materials. But there was parent and community resistance.

“Parents complained that they couldn’t help their children with their homework. Some thought we should be concentrating on other things, like multiplication tables.”

Some textbook publishers based their plans on the expectation that all textbooks would be in metrics by the 1980s, said Leslie Winters, mathematics coordinator for Los Angeles city secondary schools. “They found they couldn’t give the books away,” he added.

California school officials had pledged that by 1985 all textbooks would use metrics exclusively when referring to measurements. But they found that the books would be prohibitively expensive unless all states agreed to the texts.

In Los Angeles, it was hoped that by now half of the measurement-related math problems given to students would be in metrics. However, because of the general resistance, only about one-third of the problems are expressed in metrics, Winters said.

The subject is usually introduced in the middle to upper elementary grades, he added. Students are not taught conversions between the two systems but must work the solution to a problem within the particular system, he said. The approach is similar to teaching a foreign language, Round said. “You must learn to think in that language,” she said.

Students do not seem to have problems learning metrics, Winters said. “The kids aren’t afraid of it. We are.”

Schools have also supplemented formal instruction by introducing metrics subtly into the school environment. It is the same approach taken recently by others interested in acquainting Americans with the metric system.

Everyone seems to have decided to make it “as subliminal as possible,” Winters said. He pointed out that Americans have become accustomed to two-liter soft drink containers and other consumer products such as milk, wine and liquor that are sold in metric measurements with little fanfare. In many kindergarten classes, children now play with alphabet blocks cut in cubic-centimeter sizes rather than in cubic inches, he said.