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Schools Given Good Mark on Metric Conversion

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Washington--Schools are doing a good job of introducing young people to the metric system, business and government officials meeting here last week to assess the status of the nation's metric-conversion effort generally agreed, but the adult society has been slow to adapt.

America's conversion to the metric system, which some advocates hoped would be completed by 1985, has been slowed by economic recessions, by opposition from people who have had no training in metrics, and by the federal government's policy of promoting voluntary change. The conversion may not take place until the end of the century, according to participants at the conference, which was sponsored by the American National Metric Council and the U.S. Department of Commerce.


See related chart on page 16.

In the meantime, some educators fear, metric education, which has already lost its special federal subsidy, may lose its momentum as well.

"The larger community is afraid of something different," said David Goldman, acting chief of the Commerce Department's office of metric programs, which was established last October to replace the National Metric Board that President Reagan had disbanded a month before.

Mr. Goldman said he believes the metric system will be predominant by the year 2000, when "our schoolchildren of today will ... be the consumers and many will be in decisionmaking positions. To them, metric will be routine."

The 1970's growth of metric education was the result of strong national leadership, educators said.

"Influenced to a great extent by programs emanating from the Education Department's Metric Education Program and by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, publishers of standardized tests and textbooks have been encouraged to include metric terms as a matter of course," according to Dennis R. Smith, a mathematics teacher from Middleboro, Mass., who represented education on the U.S. Metric Board.

In the board's summary report, published last July, Mr. Smith noted that "most states either require that the metric system be taught or include metric questions on state-mandated tests."

The federal government's interest in metric conversion began in 1968 when President Johnson called for a nationwide study of whether the U.S. should adopt the metric system. That study, presented to the Congress in 1971 by the secretary of commerce, recommended that in 10 years measurement in the U.S. be predominantly, if not exclusively, metric. It suggested that the government produce the change deliberately and carefully through a coordinated national program.

In 1975, President Ford signed into law the Metric Conversion Act, which declared "the policy of the U.S. shall be to coordinate and plan the increasing use of the metric system in the U.S." But the law removed any target date and made implementation a voluntary, private-sector initiative. Today, despite conversions in some industries, the U.S. is the only major nation that uses, for the most part, a nonmetric system of measurement.

President Reagan, in a letter sent to the national metric council before the meeting, stressed the importance of metric conversion but did not suggest any alteration in the government's policy of promoting voluntary change.

"The issue of metric transition has become increasingly important in the area of international trade and productivity," he wrote, adding that the National Productivity Advisory Committee "has recommended that the federal government continue to support conversion to metric measurement to enhance U.S. international competitiveness and, hence, productivity in several industries."

In spite of the Reagan Administration's avowed commitment to "metric transition," educators at the conference noted that the Administration has made several moves that reduce the impetus for metric education.

The Administration, they noted, put government funding for metric education--some $2 million per year--into the block-grant package to states in 1981, along with several other categorical programs. It abolished the Metric Board, which had a staff of 35 members and a budget of $2.6 million, and transferred its activities to a small office in the Commerce Department with a five-person staff and a $300,000 budget.

'Vacuum in Metric Education'

"The demise of the U.S. Metric Board and the elimination of the Education Department's Metric Education Program ... created a vacuum in metric education," said Barbara Berman, a consultant with Educational Support Systems, a nonprofit organization in Staten Island, N.Y., that promotes metric education in schools nationwide.

Proponents of metric education say they do not need funds as much as they need leadership in the federal government and in state departments of education to reinforce the importance of metric education across the board in the curriculum.

"Schools need more social-studies teachers who discuss rainfall in terms of liters and more English teachers who encourage students to write distance in terms of kilometers," said Joseph R. Caravella, director of membership services of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (nctm).

"Too often, metric education is seen only as a part of the mathematics curricula," he said.

Next week is National Metric Week. Activities nationwide will include school field trips to industries that use metric specifications; exhibits of the metric system in libraries and shopping centers; and extra class time devoted to metric education. The observance is promoted by the nctm, the American National Metric Council, the U.S. Metric Association, and the Department of Commerce's office of metric programs.

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