Education Chat

Embracing NCLB: One School's Experience

In part by embracing strict the No Child Left Behind Act, Rail Road Flat Elementary, an impoverished school in rural northern California, has become one of the highest-achieving schools in the state. In this chat, Railroad Flat teacher Randall Youngblood discussed the schools' approach to academics and classroom management.

Embracing NCLB: One School’s Experience


Randall Youngblood, Teacher, Rail Road Flat Elementary

Sept. 14, 2005

Scott Cech, Teacher Magazine (Moderator):

Good evening, and welcome to Teacher Magazine’s Live Chat.

Joining us from Rail Road Flat, California, is Randall Youngblood, a 21-year teacher at Rail Road Flat Elementary. Despite its small size, the fact that 60 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, and the relentless shrinkage of its state budget allocation, the 100-student public school has posted top scores on standardized tests.

In answer to how his students have managed to do steadily more with steadily less, Youngblood is blunt: “It’s a grind, really. We come in, and we work all day.” His modus operandi and his theory of teaching are identical: “Just plow ahead.”

I’m Scott Cech, managing editor of Teacher Magazine, and I’ll be moderating this discussion with Mr. Youngblood on how he’s met the challenges of the No Child Left Behind Act with test-focused learning, firm classroom discipline, and some misgivings.

We’re getting lots of questions already, so let’s get right to them.

Question from Leah Wolczko, M.Ed. student, University of New Hampshire:
“Teaching to the test” is a term that carries derrogatory undertones. Do you “teach to the test,” and if so what does that mean to you as a teacher and to them as students?

Randall Youngblood:
I do teach to the test in that I concentrate on the California Standards. Since the students are tested and deemed proficient or not proficient according to their test results, I would be doing them a disservice if I didn’t teach to the test. We also have a lot of discussions inside and outside of the classroom in regards to events in the world and in their lives. Not every waking moment is spent on the state standards, even though it does feel that way at times.

Question from Flip Jones, 8th Grade Science Teacher, Whitlock Junior High School:
With NCLB and its Draconian consequences for those who don’t step in cadence, results like yours are very impressive. Tightened discipline helps a great deal (our school is about 90% Black, housing-project, free or reduced lunch and single partent or guardian homes) and with some of the toughest standards in the nation in South Carolina, we are being forced to jump through the same hoops. Survival as an institution requires these things, but, in your opinion, what is the downside to this approach? How many more children will be left behind, and what can we do to save them?

Randall Youngblood:
The downside to this approach is that there is a danger that we become so concerned with test results that we forget about the value of the individual as a person. I actually like the idea of having standards that are taught at a certain grade; it makes sense to me. However, the idea that every child is going to achieve those standards makes about as much sense as a basketball coach thinking each of his players will be able to dunk a basketball just because he makes that a requirement. I don’t for a second believe that I will save a child. I can make their path easier; I can provide encouragement, but the child is going to have to decide that he/she is in charge of his/her future. My wife and I took in a former student of mine as a foster child. We helped him and he is an important part of our family, but we didn’t save him. He decided that he wanted something better in his life and he worked for it. So I guess that the best I can do is to provide my students with some hope and let them know that they have the ability to be successful if that is their desire.

Question from annie levin, gardener:
now that you have your gold star, and your statistical “proof”, i would like to know how many of these children would be interested in laying on the closest, greenest, hill and deciding what animals the clouds look like. this “academic” prison sounds like a waste of childhood to me. what exactly, in your heart of hearts do you believe you have accomplished?

Randall Youngblood:
Annie, thanks for the good word. I hope all is well in your world. Hopefully I’ve helped my students have confidence in their abilities and to care about other people. God bless you.

Comment from Ellen Motohashi, PhD student, University of Pittsburgh:
Why do we need to continue polarizing educational excellence between disciplined, traditional instruction vs. less traditional, progressive instruction? Isn’t this what Dewey addressed in his pivotal Education and Experience written in 1938? More than NCLB it appears the success of Randall Youngblood is the winning combination of high expectations for all, consistent discipline and student accountability for their own work paired with a personal history of sharing the same community, and a genuine dispostion of caring that his students succeed.

Question from Joni Ballitch, Teacher, Detroit Public Schools:
I really enjoyed the article. Mission work will pay off in the end. All children have a right to an excellent educator! You will be remembered by many children forever and ever!

Is there any parental involvement in your classroom? Does your administration stand behind you to support your request for suspensions when students are put out of your class?

Randall Youngblood:
My parents aren’t involved within the walls of my classroom. I have between 25 and 34 students in my class throughout the day; the last thing I want is another body in the room. My parents are very supportive in regards to fundraising and in supporting our school and what we are trying to accomplish. My principal is very supportive! He backs me up 100%. Every teacher should be as fortunate.

Question from Martin Solomon, Ph.D., Fayette County Public Schools, Lexington, Ky:
Please compare and contrast the quality of education your students receive today under NCLB with the quality of education prior to NCLB when faculty-led basketball, student assemblies and field trips were more a part of the process.

Randall Youngblood:
I do believe that the students are learning more standards based curriculum in my classroom than they did before NCLB. It is unfortunate that we no longer have all of the assemblies that we had in the past. At one time we had a dance program at the school; the kids loved it. I really don’t see us providing the amount of time for that to happen again. As with the end of our basketball program, it is sad and the kids miss out. On the other hand if it wasn’t for NCLB our school wouldn’t have gotten the positive press and our kids wouldn’t have the positive feelings that they now have. It is a weird feeling to be recognized as successful for playing a game that you don’t truly believe in.

Question from John Shacter, consultant and teacher, Kingston, TN:
Great performance which works! But why do opponents tend to confuse FOCUSED TEACHING with “ROTE TEACHING”? And why does disciplined teaching necessarily have to conflict with generating student stimulation and interest? (I teach with emphasis on both!)

Randall Youngblood:
I don’t know. It doesn’t.

Question from Wanda Humphrey, Elementary Teacher, Canistota School District #43-1, Canistota, SD:
If children aren’t taught what’s on the test, how could they ever have a CHANCE to answer the questions. I tire of hearing accusations that he or she “teaches to the test”. How did you get the children to learn so well?

Randall Youngblood:
I agree with your teaches to the test comment. I would be less than pleased if I were tested on something I had not been taught. In regards to the my students’ positive test scores there is no secret, we just put in a lot of time covering the material. We also talk a lot about test taking strategies. I am fortunate to have three very talented teachers in the lower grades. We communicate many times daily about students. On a campus as small as ours, I know most of the kids years before they are in my class. A major factor in the students’ positive accomplishments is that they have bought into the fact that we have a tradition of success. They want to do as well or better than those classes that were here before them.

Question from Barb Butler, student teacher, Sunny Hills Elementary:
How have you kept creativity in the classroom? Teaching to the test can become dull. What are you doing to prevent that from happening?

Randall Youngblood:
I am not the most creative teacher. I try to make the day go by faster by joking with the students. I let them work together on many assignments. I also let students teach each other. I play with the students. Work hard play hard.

Question from Scott Young, Senior Policy Advisor, CQE:
Rail Road Flat Elementary only had to report two subgroups under NCLB; white and poor students (most students belonged to both). Yet, many other schools in California are accountable to several other subgroups including blacks, Hispanics, LEPs, students with disabilities, etc. That is the inherent difference in education. Each school has its own challenges. So is it fair for NCLB to have the same expectations for Rail Road Flat as it would for an urban school in Los Angeles, for example? What would you change about the law to improve it?

Also: Are you worried about the status of Rail Road Flat elementary as the AYP benchmarks increase over the next several years?

Randall Youngblood:
In answer to your first question, no. I think growth should be measured. If a student makes two years of academic growth in a year that should be celebrated. However, the student may still be “below basic.” I don’t worry too much about the AYP benchmarks because every school is going to fall short eventually. It is an inherently unfair system. It will have to be changed when the “good” districts start failing to reach the benchmarks.

Question from Joyce Ferber:
How can you know if your students retain important knowledge further than the testing date?

Randall Youngblood:
Only by getting feedback from their junior high teachers. Which I do.

Question from Lucy Gombe, M.Ed candidate, Howard University, Washinton, DC.:
Has the teaching of specials such as art, music,languages been affected in any way or is there a balance in teaching them as much as reading and math?

Randall Youngblood:
We have never had foreign language instruction since I’ve been here. I make it a point to do at least forty minutes of art instruction per week. The students have 30 minutes of classroom music. Fifth and sixth graders have the opportunity to play a band instrument. Last year over 90 percent of my students played a musical instrument.

Question from John Constantine:
Do you support high stakes testing? What if the basis for the establishment of NCLB were found to be flawed, that is based on false or misleading data?

Randall Youngblood:
No, I do not. Some years we will make our number and some years we won’t. It won’t mean that we didn’t work as hard. As Sparky Anderson said when asked why his team didn’t do as well one year,"The sun don’t shine on the same dog’s ass every year”.

Question from dan loring pta president:
what role did parents and or the community play in helping railroad flat elementary plan and achieve academic success?

Randall Youngblood:
The “town” of Rail Road Flat consists of a store, post office, cafe, a few houses, and the school. You could throw a rock and hit any of the forementioned buildings. The school is the focal point of the community. There are many people in the community that attended the school when they were kids. The parents and community members are very supportive. Whenever the District starts making noises about closing our school, the supporters come out in force. I don’t see the community being a huge force in regards to planning the academic success, that part is pretty much driven by the teachers and our principal. The community and parents really play an active role in holding high expectations for the school. They are also active in book giveaways, fundraising, and helping out in whatever way they are needed.

Question from Jeannie Noble, NBCT, Second Grade Teacher, B H Tharrington Primary School, Mount Airy, NC:
How well have the discipline policies been accepted by the parents and the community?

What were the “growing pains” associated with the changes made?

Randall Youngblood:
Parents were fairly supportive initially. As teachers we sit down and talk about discipline on a weekly basis. When there have been parental questions, I explain why I run my classroom the way I do. It seems to be working.

Question from Bonny Wilson, Alabama State Dept of Ed, School Improvement Program:
What was your strategy for classroom management? The article review said you used strong discipline, explain your strategy.

Randall Youngblood:
I think of it as consistent discipline. I explain the behavior I expect and I tell them that they set the tone for the whole school because they are the “big kids”. We go over school and classroom rules. When they get their name on the board they write 50 affirmations. If they get a check they write 100 and I call their parents. A second check and they are gone for the day.

Question from PAT KARNER, Special Education Teacher, Indian Springs School District #109:
I teach 5th/6th Special Education and am having a discipline problem. The students are all male, at risk students, nothing seems to work, what’s the secret?

Randall Youngblood:
Pat, I don’t have the answers. I just try to be firm, fair, and consistent. I try to find something from outside the classroom that I have in common with the student. Music. Sports. Whatever. I just try to connect with their life. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

Question from Jackie Swanson from North Middle School in Rapid City, SD.:
I was wondering how you handle tardies. We have a horrible time with tardies with our 6th,7th, and 8th grade students.

Randall Youngblood:
Letters are sent to the parents. After a few tardies the SARB board gets involved. It’s a long process so we just stress the importance of being here on time. When the whole school is here we add on an extra ten minutes to their lunch recess.

Question from Kim Weaster, special ed. teacher, Cedar Creek Elementary:
How are positive behavior support strategies implemented in your school?

Randall Youngblood:
Positive behavior strategies aren’t what they once were. In the past we had monthly award assemblies to recognize good behavior. Now it is down to about four assemblies a year. It’s pretty basic, but praise seems to work well for me. Letting a child know that your are pleased with their behavior works wonders. Students are rewarded by being allowed to go next door and help with Ms. Risso’s first and second graders. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but it is working for us.

Question from Shawn Bell, Assistant Principal, Hook Jr. High:
Do you beleive that there is a direct correlation between your school discipline and the overall success of your students?

Randall Youngblood:
I certainly do. Without a certain level of discipline I have a hard time teaching and I know most students have a hard time learning.

Question from Kathleen Schapira Independant Consultant:
What are some examples of “strict discipline” techniques? What is the % of students from a single parent home?

Randall Youngblood:
I would call it consistent. They don’t have their work, they spend lunch with me. They are rude or disrespectful to another person they write affirmations. Last year’s class was right at 50%.

Question from Lee Boot, filmmaker dealing with teen subjects, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, MD:
For Randall: To what degree is the success at Railroad Flat Elementary School about high standards and the discipline to meet them, and to what degree is it about narrowing curriculum to the 3Rs? Would success be possible if the same discipline and high standards were applied to, say, sports or technology education? Or the arts?

Randall Youngblood:
That’s a great question! I don’t know if I can separate them. The test scores are definitely because we have taught to the standards. I think of my teaching style as sort of coach-like: Give some basic instruction and see what they can do.

Question from Teresa Jafferis. Special Education Teacher, Illinois:
I’m trying to imgaine the KEY to this kind of success. With a campus of 730 kids and about 80% low income it seems hard to fathom. What do you think is the most influential piece to the success your school has accomplished?

Randall Youngblood:
I think that we started off with some minor successes and really celebrated those. It sort of snowballed and now we have a mindset that we are good and we will succeed.

Question from Kristine Neuber, Intern, Washington Partners:
Do you have students with disabilities in your class and within your schools? If so, how did they perform?

Randall Youngblood:
We have a few students with disabilities in our school and they didn’t do as well as the general population.

Question from Steven Shippee, Parent, North Thurston Public Schools, Olympia, Washington:
Given your small size and knowing the students as well as you [all] do, do you think this supports looping in the larger schools and/or school districts, i.e., teachers stay with the students for 2 years, as opposed to having a fresh crop each year? Thank you very much. Steven Shippee 360-902-5817

Randall Youngblood:
I really do, Steve. My students consistently make big gains in math and I think that is because the younger ones pick up so much of what the older ones are doing. It also allows me to really know my older students’ strengths and weaknesses from day one.

Question from Anne Buck, Lake County Illinois Regional Office of Education:
Dear Mr. Youngblood, How did you get your staff to embrace the values and beliefs that these children of poverty can succeed? Thank you kindly. Very valuable dialog!!! Anne Buck Lake County Illinois Reg. Office of Education

Randall Youngblood:
Our staff is small and it is just a given. We have never thought otherwise. Thanks for the kind comments.

Question from Mary Jo Verbitsky, Teacher, Charter Home Study Academy:
Do all of the teachers at the school practice the same method of instruction? If so, are they as successful (if success is measured by test scores).

Randall Youngblood:
We are all different so we teach differently. The whole group is successful; I get their students and they are ready to learn.

Question from Dayna Sanders, Literacy Facilitator, Windsor Park Elementary:
How has your teaching style changed over the years to a point where it is now being highly recognized?

Randall Youngblood:
It hasn’t changed that much. I teach the way I’ve always taught. I am just under more pressure now to cover more curriculum.

Question from L. Rivas, Principal, Atwood Academy:
What is the biggest advantage of your teaching style, aside from high test scores? What is the biggest disadvantage?

Randall Youngblood:
The biggest advantage is that we can get through a lot of curriculum. The biggest disadvantage is that a child can feel overwhelmed. That is sort of the way I feel when I look at the grade level standards on my wall.

Question from Stephen Lafer, Prof., Univ. of Nevada, Reno:
In a community where the unemployment level is above 40 percent, “There’s a need for structure,” says Rail Road Flat teacher Randall Youngblood. “If I was teaching in another socioeconomic group, it might be different.”

I am curious as to what this means in regard to expectations you hold for the futures of your students. How do you see your approach in relation to the goals of education? Are there, should there be different goals set for students from different socio-economic backgrounds? How does this correlate with notions of equal opportunity through education?

Randall Youngblood:
I want my students to feel that they can compete with anyone. I don’t want them to feel that they aren’t as good as someone who has more money or goes to a bigger school. I want them to be proud that they attend Rail Road Flat School. The socioeconomic comment had to do with what I’ve observed at other schools and conversations Ive had with other teachers. Lack of self-discipline seems to be an issue with a number of my students. If a student comes to me who is weak in reading, I try to help the child become a better reader. If a child lacks self-discipline I try to change that as well. I think that all teachers want their students to be successful. In regards to equal opportunity through education, I don’t think that it exists. I think opportunity exists and that is terribly important. I just look around and I don’t see how there is anything approaching equality in education. I expect my students to be successful members of the community. I bring back former students each year to speak to my class. I think that it is important to show my students that you can leave our small community and be successful in the big city. I really hope I answered your questions; I feel like I haven’t though.

Question from Joe Moses, U of Minnesota:
Seems like your teaching style would be effective under any legislation. Aren’t we really talking about teaching that works rather than standards that work?

Randall Youngblood:
The only reason that I am doing this web chat is because our school scored higher than some people thought we should. I would like to think that we were doing a good job before NCLB.

Question from Carol Riley, CA Superintendent, retired:
There are many reasons for your success. However, if asked to identify the three most significant what would they be?

Randall Youngblood:
Teaching with great teachers, a supportive principal, and experience.

Scott Cech, Teacher Magazine (Moderator):
Thanks for all the great questions, and thanks to Mr. Youngblood for joining us. Unfortunately, we have more questions than time, so we’ll have to leave the discussion there. A transcript of this chat will soon be available on the Teacher Magazine web site. To read reporter Wesley F. Sander’s story on Rain Road Flat in the current Teacher Magazine, you may link here:

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