Which End Of The Ruler Is Up?

She Got a Lot Out of Those Physics and Shop Cl...

She Got a Lot Out of Those Physics and Shop Classes (Photo credit: cogdogblog)

Now that I’ve fully recovered from Thanksgiving dinner and have made a pledge to myself to shed the extra five pounds, I pound the keyboard while pumping away on a stationary bike, beads of sweat dripping on the trackpad… You know that’s so not true. But dammt, I’m going to the gym tomorrow. Wait, tomorrow’s Sunday, football. Monday! I’m going to the gym Monday.

Now down to business.

My students are working on an algebra problem that requires them to measure the side of a rectangle, get a ratio that relates the two sides, then write a linear equation that gives the respective sides of any size rectangle given that ratio. As I hand out the rulers (the ones with both a  standard and metric side) a few students sit there with question marks visibly hovering over there heads. So I ask one of them if they have a question. The student looks at me and says,”Which side is inches?” So I stop and say to the class, “Raise your hand if you would like me to explain how to measure the side.” Almost all the hands go up.

The aforementioned lesson is now cancelled. “Well okay. First, the side with the little lines that are all different lengths is the inches side…” By the way, these are 16 and 17 year old kids.

This is not a slam on the kids, nor is this post a slam on elementary education. It just seems that certain skills, like using a ruler, are receding into the recesses of a distant past where those skills were a necessary preparatory for a career in something other than finance or video game design or marketing. Learning manual skills has lost a context in education – a more serious problem than many realize.

Enter John Ratzenberger, Cliff Clavin of Cheers fame:

The average age of the American factory worker is around 57 years old. A lot of people aren’t aware of that. Many major corporations, especially in manufacturing, can’t find enough workers. The companies can’t say anything because it will affect their stock prices. There’s a ton of work out there, it’s just that there aren’t enough skilled people to fill them. We need to inspire the next generation before we run out of people who can make a building and invent things. We’ve got maybe six to 10 years before the entire workforce is impacted.


Ratzenberger has become an activist for education reform. But his reform is not about raising test scores. It is about rejuvenating a defunct set of programs that were common in education 50 years ago – shop classes. These were the classes that taught you how to use a ruler if you didn’t know how to use one. These were the classes that taught the importance of precision and saving yourself extra work by doing it right the first time. Granted, not everyone is cut out for a trade or technical, manufacturing job, but not everyone is cut out for 14th century French literature or biochemistry either. Of course shop classes today would focus on 21st century technical skills but the need is still the same (unless you’re into classic cars in which case you do need to know how to fix a carburetor).

Not sure you want to believe the guy who played Cliff Claven?

The problem is: can companies keep hiring and retaining enough talent to keep the boom going? A report from Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute, issued at the end of 2011, finds talent shortages are growing more acute. “Shortages in skilled production jobs – machinists, operators, craft workers, distributors, technicians, and more – are taking their toll on manufacturers’ ability to expand operations, drive innovation, and improve productivity. Seventy-four percent of respondents indicated that workforce shortages or skills deficiencies in skilled production roles are having a significant impact on their ability to expand operations or improve productivity. Unfortunately, these jobs require the most training, and are traditionally among the hardest manufacturing jobs to find existing talent to fill.”


Ratzenberger has been raising the alarm bells and warning that a lack of skilled labor will cripple America’s industry within another 20 years or so. What to do about it?

The solutions will have to come from local communities, not only to raise awareness but to develop partnerships between schools and manufacturers, trade unions, tech schools, grant committees, chambers of commerce and parents. Current cuts in education make rebuilding high school tech programs a challenging prospect. But the resources exist to make technical training a part of kids’ education once again. The result would be that students like mine would have a tangible reason to learn math and how to use a ruler. I dream of the day when I’ll be able to ask a student, “Here’s a 2 x4 that is 24 3/8 in. long. Divide it into 3 equal lengths. How long is each piece?” and they’ll be able to answer correctly.

To learn more go to http://www.centerforamerica.org and take the “10 by 20” pledge. Cliffy will thank you.

We just can’t end without a quote from Cliff sitting at the bar on Cheers:

[Cliff is describing a poem he is about to recite]
Cliff Clavin: It’s written in iambic pentathlon with rhyming couplets, every couple of couplets.


5 Comments on “Which End Of The Ruler Is Up?”

  1. Purnimodo November 27, 2012 at 6:18 AM #

    Math, I think, is a language. We need this to describe the world around us and if you don’t comprehend this language. How are we going to function in to days society?

    It’s a bit alarming that 16/17 year old children need explanation for this. I don’t think it’s just America. I’m tutoring freshmen (not sure if this is the correct term) but often I have to start with basics from the third grade. It’s sad because these are the years they are supposed to choose what they want to be – and an unnecessarily lack of comprehension of the technical subjects might make them shy away from a profession they would otherwise have loved.

    Dutch education is very experimental and focuses on being creative at the same time a lot of parents think school will educate your children. A lot of children that go without parental support, and who can’t keep up with the system we have now, fall in this gap that has been created. It’s sometimes jaw dropping to see how little they know.

    Government reforms take a long time and I fully agree that it has to come from the community. A trend you see now in Holland/Europe are science parks. Educational institutes, manufacturers etc are increasingly clustered together.

    We have the same problem here but as along as people continue to raise awareness I do have hope.

    • Robert-preneur December 1, 2012 at 9:45 PM #

      Hola Purnimodo!
      I think of Northern European education as being more efficient and effective than that in the U.S. generally. I didn’t know that in the Netherlands there would be these kinds of issues. I guess the notion that public education should be all things to students is a common phenomenon. In the Netherlands do they have the equivalent of U.S. continuation schools for high school students who fall far behind in credits and are in danger of not graduating?

      • Purnimodo December 4, 2012 at 6:35 AM #

        We don’t have such a thing as a continuation schools but you can (if you have the money) either go to a private school, do state exams or drop to a less ‘difficult’ division.

        Northern European education does have a good reputation but it really depends on the school. Most public schools don’t function really well. Colleges are forced to give (basic algebra) math classes/tests in the first year because secondary schools fail to deliver students that have enough comprehension of the subject.

        Since two years math is now compulsory for each secondary student again but the real problem is in elementary. The books are overstocked with pictures and barely any exercises. They go so unprepared to secondary schools…

  2. Purnimodo November 27, 2012 at 6:21 AM #

    lol.. okay my English is soupy again.. talking about education 😉

  3. Robert-preneur December 4, 2012 at 8:41 PM #

    Your English isn’t “soupy.” It’s more like chocolate pudding. 😉
    Your English is excellent.
    I’m surprised. U.S. students are compared very unfavorably with students from other industrialized nations in math and science. One of the new education initiatives, “Common Core,” is supposed to bring our students up to international standards over the next decade.
    Maybe you can come visit the U.S. and tell the various state departments of education to lighten up. 😀

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