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Pendulum Is Seen Swinging 'Back Toward Metric'

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Dennis Holt has seen official enthusiasm for teaching the metric system of measurement wax and wane several times in his 19 years as a mathematics teacher.

Today, because he uses the metric system exclusively in his high school algebra and geometry classes, he often finds himself the exception among his colleagues.

"But I anticipate [the emphasis] will swing back toward metric,'' Mr. Holt, who heads the math department at Champlin Park (Minn.) High School, said. "I just think that's the way it works in education.''

Developments at both the national level and in the federal government may prove Mr. Holt correct.

A report on compliance with a 1991 executive order on metric conversion, released earlier this month by the U.S. Department of Commerce, could help set in motion the use of the metric system on highway signs and in business transactions, perhaps paving the way for the transition to large-scale metric use in schools and throughout the country.

And, more immediately for schools, a panel of the National Academy of Sciences late this week is expected to unveil a first draft of national standards for science education, which could include the metric system as part of the curriculum that all students should know.

Despite these efforts, however, some educators remain skeptical that a knowledge of the metric system is essential for students in the United States.

"Personally, I think the metric conversion [effort] goes the wrong way when it tries to teach a system to people that they have no need to use,'' said F. James Rutherford, the director of Project 2061, a major science-education-reform project sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "After all, most of the things we have out in the world there use the English system.''

'Retrenchment' Cited

One of only a handful of countries to resist the use of the metric system, the United States has wrestled with the issue for more than a century.

Congress legalized the use of the system in 1866, but conversion did not become federal policy until 1975, when President Ford signed the Metric Conversion Act.

As part of that measure, the U.S. Education Department spearheaded national efforts to assist states in developing metric curricula and encouraging their use in schools.

Those efforts, which were voluntary, stalled in the face of a critical report issued by the General Accounting Office, and sputtered to a halt when President Reagan folded the Education Department's metric-education program into a block grant to states and abolished the U.S. Metric Board. (See Education Week, May 4, 1983, and Oct. 1, 1986.)

"For whatever reason, it all stopped, and since then, there's been a retrenchment,'' said Gary P. Carver, the chief of the metric program at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

But President Bush's 1991 executive order, Mr. Carver added, may put the issue back on the agenda.

That order requires federal agencies to use metric units in such business-related activities as purchasing and procurement.

One offshoot of that requirement, which may lead to greater public acceptance of the system, is that the U.S. Department of Transportation may require the states to use metric measurement on highway signs as early as the mid-1990's.

The order is aimed, according to Mr. Carver, at using federal policy as a lever to encourage American businesses to convert to the worldwide standard, with the presumption that such changes eventually will have an impact on society at large.

"The situation is very different from what was going on in the 1970's,'' said Mr. Carver, who is overseeing federal compliance with the executive order. "We didn't even talk about a world market then.''

This approach provides no leadership role for the Education Department, he noted, beyond complying with the regulations laid down in the executive order.

Absent From Schools

Critics of the moribund pace of metric conversion argue, however, that the lack of any federal or national leadership has stalled any momentum the movement may have had to influence teaching in the public schools.

"The public schools are not, with any kind of consistency across the country, teaching the metric system,'' according to Lorelle Young, the president of the California-based U.S. Metric Association, a nonprofit advocacy group.

There are some exceptions, however, she noted. Some isolated districts, such as the school systems in Fairfax County, Va., and Montgomery County, Md.--both affluent suburbs of the nation's capital--support what Ms. Young termed "pretty good'' metric programs.

And a recent edition of the U.S.M.A.'s newsletter, "Metric Today,'' notes that an increasingly widely used textbook, the newest edition of "Discovering Geometry,'' published by Key Curriculum Press, of Berkeley, Calif., is also metric-based.

For the most part, though, Ms. Young said, school districts tend to deal with the topic only during National Metric Week, an annual event sponsored by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics during the month of October.

And Mr. Carver observed that even districts with good metric-education programs tend to teach the system in isolation, as part of arithmetic and math courses.

"The one thing they don't do is to use it throughout the curriculum,'' he said.

Ms. Young and others also assert that the professional associations of science and math teachers have failed to fill the leadership void left by the Education Department.

The N.C.T.M.'s highly regarded teaching and curriculum standards "only give lip service'' to the issue of metric use and conversion, said Valerie Antoine, the U.S.M.A.'s executive director.

The N.C.T.M. did adopt a statement on "metrication'' in 1986 that called for a multidisciplinary effort on the part of all educators to make use of the metric system "an integral part of the [math] curriculum.''

"All teachers and administrators share the responsibility to prepare students for a world where the metric system of measurement prevails,'' the statement adds.

But the responsibility for implementing such programs lies in the hands of individual members and state organizations, a spokesman for the council said.

Some Are Skeptical

But some experts in the field of math and science education are skeptical of efforts to include metric "add-ons'' in the current curriculum.

"Science for All Americans,'' a landmark document for science-education reform drafted by the A.A.A.S.'s Project 2061, for example, makes no mention of the metric system in its prescription for scientific literacy.

The decision to ignore metric measurement reflects, in part, the philosophy of Mr. Rutherford, the report's author, that mandating metric instruction is unlikely to make students competent in its use.

Instead, he argued, a government-mandated conversion effort, such as changing highway signs, is more likely to coax people into adopting the system in their daily lives.

He conceded that position is "not a terribly popular view,'' but he noted that the decision to omit the metric system from "Science for All Americans'' conforms to its underlying philosophy of streamlining the curriculum to emphasize the belief that "less is more.''

Mr. Rutherford also argued that metric measurement in the sciences can often be far more complicated than it is portrayed by advocates of conversion.

Standards Offer Hope

Ms. Young said, however, that she believes the movement to codify national standards in science and math provides a decisive moment to mount a new campaign for metric teaching.

She said she has lobbyied Mary Lindquist, the newly elected president of the N.C.T.M., to take a more active role in supporting metric conversion.

Meanwhile, the U.S.M.A.--along with countless other special-interest groups--hopes to influence the science-standards-setting process undertaken by the academy of sciences.

The process, which has been under way since the summer, is expected to reach a milestone when a rough draft of the working group on curriculum standards is debated later this month at a forum on school science sponsored by the A.A.A.S.

The draft introduced at that meeting will be subjected to a lengthy national process of "critique and consensus,'' in which items omitted from the draft may well be added.

"Those standards are going to set guidelines for textbook writers,'' Ms. Young said. "To not [include metric conversion] would make the science curriculum even farther behind the rest of the world's than it already is.''

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