Give ‘em a centimeter, they’ll take . . .

When Jeanne Zaino was in second grade, teachers were told to teach the metric system. The Metric Conversion Act of 1975 had made metric the preferred system of weights and measures. It’s a cautionary tale for Common Core standards, writes Zaino, a professor of political science and international studies at Iona College.

She recalls:

(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.

Her teacher tried, but students could tell she wasn’t enthusiastic about teaching second graders about centimeters and meters when they weren’t clear about inches, feet, and yards. The teacher probably didn’t know the metric system well herself.

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.

. . . without the support, understanding, and enthusiasm of teachers, these directives tend to either fail or fizzle away.

I worry about elementary teachers trying to teach “deep understanding” of math concepts they don’t really understand themselves.

The metric system was the wave of the future when I was in second grade in 1959. Soon the U.S. would stop using the old-fashioned inches, feet and yards, Miss Bletsch told us. I learned that a centimeter is sort of like an inch and a meter is very much like a yard and . . . I may have peaked too soon on the metric system.

About Joanne