2010 Sep. 12
Letters to the Editor
Your cover story on education
laments that, out of 30 developed nations, the US ranks only 21st in science literacy and 25th in math literacy, despite our being 5th in per-pupil spending. The article goes on to place the blame for this state of affairs largely on teachers' unions.
However, in a typical demonstration of American hubris and denial, no mention at all is made of another likely culprit: The US is the only nation in the world that doesn't use the metric system. Since metres, litres, and kilograms are the language of science, American teachers have to waste valuable class time teaching their students the fundamentals of how to measure; kids from Sweden, Canada, Germany, Japan, etc. have already picked up these skills at home and so can buckle down right away to story problems and the periodic table.
It gets worse. American children may be exposed in school to the metric system (just as they are to, say, Latin or the abacus), but it's not something they get to use daily at the grocery store, the football field, or the weather forecast. So they don't connect science and math to real life; for them, those vital subjects are more like characters in a Dickens novel — mildly interesting in a limited context but ultimately irrelevant … and forgettable with no visible ill effects.
Finally, of course, those international tests aren't asking about pounds, miles, gallons, or degrees Fahrenheit, so guess which nation's kids take longer and do worse on them.
It didn't have to be this way. Under Gerald Ford, Congress passed the Metric Conversion Act of 1975. Jimmy Carter duly appointed members to a national Metric Conversion Board, and the US was on its way down a 25-year road to joining the rest of humanity in the world's 1st truly global accomplishment. Then President Reagan came along and threw out metric conversion along with the solar panels on the White House roof, and we've been stuck in our arrogant complacency ever since.
So, in the noble tradition of Ronald Reagan, go ahead and destroy the teachers' unions, then come back in 30 years and wonder why our kids' science and math scores STILL haven't improved.