May is a month full of celebrations—everything from May Day and Cinco de Mayo to Mother’s Day and Memorial Day. Largely forgotten in the cornucopia of May celebrations, however, is National Metric Week. From 1976 until 1984, the week of May 10 was National Metric Week.
I was in elementary school when Congress passed the Metric Conversion Act of 1975. Signed into law by President Gerald R. Ford, the act designated the metric system as the preferred system of weights and measures in the United States. As a result, when children across the country returned to school the following year, they were confronted by teachers who—with varying levels of enthusiasm—set to work to make this conversion a reality. Shortly after that, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics dubbed one week in May the aforementioned National Metric Week.
I have no recollection of what my teacher actually said when she introduced us to the metric system or what she intended to say, but I have a vivid recollection of what I took from it: (a) the United States is behind the rest of the world when it comes to measuring, and this doesn’t bode well for your futures; (b) if we have any hope of reasserting ourselves on the world stage, we have to buck up, forget our outmoded system of measurement, and adopt this new system; and (c) the president said you have to learn this, so, whether we like it or not, here are your new rulers.
I had a good teacher, and I am sure she tried as hard as possible to be enthusiastic about this new system. I can still see her trying to muster a smile as she announced it was time to “break out your rulers.” But as hard as she tried, it was clear to all of us that she wasn’t much more excited to teach the new system than we were to learn it. And who can blame her for being anxious? She probably hadn’t learned the metric system, and now, after a summer of cramming and directives by the administration, she was being held accountable for teaching it to a bunch of wide-eyed 2nd graders who had just started learning about inches, feet, and yards.
I have no problem with mandates, but they work only if they are fully embraced by those on the ground.”
Looking back, I am fairly certain that our collective inertia and trepidation pretty much guaranteed that the mandate was going to fail.
Lately, as I watch my own son’s elementary school teachers struggle to introduce the common-core standards, the latest mandate in our state, I have been thinking a lot about the failed attempt to introduce the metric system. I have no problem with mandates, but they work only if they are fully embraced by those on the ground, those who stand at the front of the classroom every day.
Congress, state education boards, cities, towns, and administrators can mandate whatever they want, but without the support, understanding, and enthusiasm of teachers, these directives tend to either fail or fizzle away. Just ask anyone who was sitting in one of America’s primary or secondary schools in the 1970s when, as well-intentioned as the metric-conversion mandate may have been, the experiment fell flat on its face.
A version of this article appeared in the May 22, 2013 edition of Education Week as Teaching the Metric System