The Measure of a Child

Natural Learning by Kathleen McCurdy

My first child was a beautiful baby in his mother’s eyes and, as all new mothers, I determined to provide everything that a mother could provide to ensure the comfort, well being, and successful development of that precious bundle of humanity. Though I was a new mother, I did not feel inexperienced, having much younger siblings. I knew how to sterilize bottles, mix formula, and even spoon feed an infant.

In the early Sixties, when hardly anyone was breastfeeding, many of us watched our aunts and neighbors give bottles to their babies. But a new age was dawning, and some of us decided to check out a more “natural” way―only to discover that it didn’t come so naturally. Before, when the baby cried, the mother could check the bottle to know if her baby might still be hungry or had a different problem. But when breastfeeding, how could one tell if the baby had enough? It may sound silly today, but some of us actually weighed the baby before and after a feeding just to make sure.

Another strange custom that young mothers probably can’t fathom now was the four hour feeding schedule. Formula (or cow’s milk) has greater staying power, so babies were fed every four hours by the clock. The nurses taught us to breastfeed our babies by the same schedule…with dreadful results. Babies cried a lot.  Mothers cried too! And the result was frequent trips to the doctor to weigh and measure the baby. This resulted in much unnecessary interference, and babies were soon weaned to the bottle on doctor’s orders.

So what does this have to do with homeschooling? Many of us have chosen to part with a tradition of intellectual bottle feeding that relies on curriculum and scheduled instruction. But it doesn’t come naturally at first. Instead of children being programmed to start and stop learning by the bell, we find our children asking questions almost constantly. We eye our neighbor’s curriculum and hear about report cards…and wonder if our children are actually learning anything. Some of us may resort to measuring their growth with standardized tests. But far from providing reassurance, these only tended to confuse us. And the professionals who administer the tests are only too happy to take o money for the privilege of suggesting that we enroll the child in some service or school program.

And yet the most complacent of parents occasionally stand their child up to the wall and get out the measuring tape. It’s fun to see how much he kids have grown in a year., especially when they really start to stretch out. But what if measuring tape was only allowed in doctors’ offices? What if we were required to measure at certain times and under certain conditions? What if laws were written requiring our children to measure a certain amount or reach a certain level year by year? And what if our capacity as parents to feed or children was restricted whenever their growth lagged behind tat of their peers? This is exactly the condition in which many homeschooling families find themselves regarding the issue of standardized tests.  In past years when homeschooling was struggling to attain legal standing, many felt that testing was a small price o pay in exchange for the freedom to keep our children at home. We never expected test to become inaccessible to most parent, making t necessary for them to depend on professional educators after all.

Most parents I’ve met would be happy t tell the world how well their children have progressed in homeschooling. We are so pleased with their mental growth that we’d like to measure them to see just how much they’ve really learned. But of course standardized tests don’t measure academic progress the way a measuring tape measures physical growth. They only compare our child to the national average in a few general areas. Mostly, they measure test taking skills.

It has been said that public education can never be reformed as long as it remains compulsory. Homeschoolers seem to have validated that argument. Is it possible that compulsory “standardized” testing will prove to be the last obstacle in the way of genuine educational freedom? Instead of politicized tests and weighted questions, we need a simple set of goals―basic skills and general knowledge that everyone can agree on as a measure of educational stature. And the measuring should be voluntary.