Monthly Archives: March 2017

Phenology: A Study You Perhaps Never Heard of andA Project-Based Learning Opportunity

Building curriculum around project- and problem-based learning is both motivating for students as well as a way to help them connect their own experiences to essential knowledge.
The National Phenology Network provides opportunities for teachers and their students, to engage in project- and problem-based learning and also to contribute usable data that advances out understanding of the interaction between living things and nature’s seasonal cycles.

First a little background about phenology.

On Groundhog Day 2017: Puxsutawney Phil predicted six more weeks of winter eventhough spring was already well-established.

As one of the many newspaper reports put it: “After a mild winter across much of the United States, brought abnormally high temperatures, especially east of the Rockies. Spring weather arrived more than three weeks earlier than usual, …” (White and Fountain, 2017)

Poor Phil! But it’s really not his fault.

In fact, groundhogs across North America are having problems because they are increasingly out of sync with the seasons.

One of the most important adaptations that living organisms make is their synchrony, being on time with nature’s seasonal cycles. 

Insect eating birds time their nesting so that there will be insects to feed the hatchlings, while insects emerge from eggs in synchrony with the plants they will eat. (USGS National Phenology Network)

The groundhog spends the cold winter months when his food is scarce hibernating and living off his store of fat accumulated by gorging on all the wild grasses, berries and farm crops like alfalfa and corn he could find.

Groundhogs begin their annual hibernation when shorter daylight and cooling fall temperatures signals the groundhog’s hypothalamus to release the cascade of hormones that control hibernation. The hormone leptin, for example, slows the groundhog’s metabolism and suppresses its appetite. 

Toward spring when temperatures begin to rise, the production the leptin tapers off and the animal’s appetite increases, eventually waking it up. As the animal transitions from winter sleep to warm weather being in sync with the seasons matters a great deal.

Thirty years ago, Colorado groundhogs came out of their hibernations during the third week in May. Now they are emerging as early as the third week in April. An earlier wake up can be dangerous for the groundhog because it means that there are fewer food sources for an animal that has depleted its energy resources during hibernation. In addition, if snow is still present, the groundhog won’t have access to all of its different burrow entrances and will be at risk of being caught in the open by one of its many predators such as hawks, coyotes, bobcats, and the occasional fox. (Gourdarzi, 2007)

When spring events occur earlier and fall events happen later serious consequences for plants and animals become more likely.

In the southeast, early springs can accelerate the germination of fruit trees making them vulnerable to late freezes. That’s what happened this spring in South Carolina when the March freeze destroyed 85 to 90 percent of the peach crop. (Purvis, 2017)

Warm winters pose another type of problem for fruit trees. Peaches, cherries, apples and pears evolved in a temperate climate. They go dormant when the temperature drops, protecting them from freezes. The cold is actually important to the tree’s fruit production. Peach and apple trees actually require a certain amount of chilling in order for new buds to grow. Peaches require from 800 to 1200 chilling hours while apples need more than 1200 chilling hours. Absent the right amount of chilling during the winter, the spring crop will be late and the fruit less bountiful. (Cold Hardiness of Fruit Trees, 2016)

The industrial revolution with its reliance of coal and oil has brought about a massive increase in the world’s population along with an ever-increasing use of fossil fuels, pumping huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. While there are other factors that “force” climate change (solar variability and volcanic eruptions), climate models based on over a century of weather data, show “that the whole trend in the historical simulations” in the steady rise in global temperature is due to greenhouse gas emissions that are the result of human activity. (van Oldenborgh and others, 2017).

Given the importance of the complex interactions between climate and plant and animal life, it is important to have accurate information about them.

A principal way to acquire such information is by phenological investigation. Phenology is an observational science that can be practiced by citizens of all ages and backgrounds by participating in the USA National Phenology Network (USAnpn). The USAnpn is funded by the U.S Geological Survey, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, National Park Service, The University of Arizona and the National Science Foundation.

Phenology (“Nature’s calendar”) employs “status monitoring,” an approach to observing specific organisms by relating their development to the calendar and location. 

Thirty years of phenological data collected by volunteers including even very young students and mapped by date and location shows how the spring in 2017 is about twenty-five days earlier than it was thirty years ago. You can see the maps here.

Phenology is a way to connect students to the natural world as well as to science practices. The Nature’s Notebook Education Program is a “place-based, hands-on” learning opportunity that has potential for educator collaboration and student engagement in project-based learning. You can find more about this at the Nature’s Notebook Website.


Gourdarzi, Sara (2007). Global Warming Wakes Groundhogs Earlier. Live Science, February 1, 2007. Retrieved from
Purvis, Kathleen (2017. Brace yourself for a summer without many peaches. Charlotte Observer, March 20, 2017. Retrieved from
USGS National Phenology Network Taking the Pulse of the Planet.
van Oldenborgh, Geert van (KNMI), Andrew King (University of Melbourne), Friederike Otto (University of Oxford) Gabriel Vecchi (Princeton University), Claudia Tebaldi (NCAR and Climate Central) and Heidi Cullen (Climate Central) (2017). U.S. Heat, February 2017. Weather Attribution. Retrieved from
White, Jeremy & Andrew Fountain (2017). Spring Came Early. Scientists Blame Climate Change. New York Times, March 8, 2017. Retrieved from

phenology, climate change, spring 2017, groundhogs, hibernation, leptin, synchrony, problem-based learning, project-based learning, hands-on


Recent Research: Three Voucher Programs, Indiana, Louisiana, and Ohio

The policy of providing vouchers to pay tuition for public school students to attend private schools aims to give families whose income falls below a certain level or whose children attend schools that are deemed to be “failing” the option of sending their children to a private school.

The principle behind the voucher strategy is the assumption that any given private school is better than any given public school, therefore a child who can attend a private school will receive a better education than in a public school. However, because private schools have historically served children from affluent families, their supposed “better” may be an artifact of their student population.

State voucher legislation has an accountability requirement that private schools accepting state funds must use the state accountability test to measure student progress. This means that researchers are able to compare progress made by voucher students with their peers in public schools using the same criteria, a standards-based accountability examination that covers the same content for both groups.

The fact that students in private schools take the same accountability tests as their peers in public school makes it possible to test the principle results of private school superiority.

Research on voucher programs has yielded mixed results with some students in some settings doing well while other students in other settings show no differences.  So, black students in New York City experienced growth in reading and math but there were no gains for their Hispanic peers in either reading or math. In the District of Columbia voucher program reading scores improved after the third year in the program while there was no improvement in math. There was no evidence of differences in reading scores in Milwaukee. Other educational outcomes like higher rates of graduation were found in New York and DC along with higher rates of college attendance in New York. (Dynarski, 2016)

Indiana, Louisiana, and Ohio each has a voucher program and each of these has been studied over the past year and a half. The question that each of the studies tested was when compared to their academic performance in public school, was their subsequent performance in private school the same, better, or worse.

Indiana’s voucher program began in 2011 and was continued and expanded in 2014. There is now no limit to the numbers of students who can participate. In addition, the means test has been modified to allow families with higher incomes to participate.

In a study conducted by Drs. R. Joseph Waddington and  Mark Berends, respectively from the University of Kentucky and the University of Notre Dame found that students switching from a public school to a public charter experience no differences in achievement. In the case where students switch to a private school using an Indiana voucher, students experienced annual loses of -0.09 SD in mathematics and -0.11 SD in English-Language Arts. Studens who switched to Catholic schools experienced losses of -0.18 SD in mathematics. (Waddington and Berends, 2016, #27765)

The Louisiana Scholarship program was studied by the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans. As with the Indiana study it also found consistently negative consequences for the academic performance of students using vouchers to attend private schools.  A student performing at the 50th percentile in math at a public school who then enrolled in a private school using a voucher saw his/her performance decline to the 34th percentile after one year. If the student was in the third, fourth, or fifth grade, the decline was to the 26th percentile. There were similar declines in reading, to the 46th percentile from the 50th. (Mills et al., 2016)

Finally, research funded by the voucher-friendly Walton Family Foundation and conducted by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute examined the Ohio EdChoice voucher program. The conclusion from the study was that “Students who use vouchers to attend private schools have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools.” (Dynarski, 2016) & (Figlio and Karbownik, 2016, p. 39)

The three studies of voucher results in Indiana, Louisiana, and Ohio undercuts the assumption that is beneficial to students to move from a public to a private school.

It is a fact that since the decade of the nineties  public schools have been “under heavy pressure to improve test scores” something that private schools have not had to consider.  There is further evidence that public schools actually outperform private schools. 

In a NAEP funded study of NAEP mathematics scores, Lubienski & Lubienski (2006) found that when demographics and location were controlled, public schools “significantly out-scored Catholic schools by over 7 points in 4th grade math, and almost 4 points in 8th grade. math. Of private school types studied…the fastest growing segment of the private school sector, conservative Christian schools, were also the lowest performing, trailing public schools by more than 10 points at grades 4 and 8.” (Lubienski and Lubienski, 2006, p.4)  Note: the public schools in both Ohio and Indiana public schools performed above the national average on the most recent NAEP for fourth grade reading and mathematics.

The mixed results in earlier research on vouchers and the fairly unequivocal results of three studies described above pose interesting questions for both policymakers and parents to consider.


Dynarski, M. (2016). On negative effects of vouchers. Economic Studies at Brookings: Evidence Speaks Reports, 1(48). Retrieved from

Figlio, David (2016) Evaluation of Ohio’s EdChoice Scholarship Program: Selection, Competition, and Performance Effects retrieved from

Lubienski, C., & Lubienski, S. T. (2006). Charter, Private, Public Schools and Academic Achievement: New Evidence from NAEP Mathematics Data. National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education. Retrieved from

Mills, J., N., Egalite, A. J., & Wolf, P. J. (2016). Education Alliance for New Orleans. Retrieved from

Waddington, R. J., & Berends, M. (2016). School Choice in Indianapolis: Effects of Charter, Magnet, Private, and Traditional Public Schools. Education Finance and Policy. doi:doi:10.1162/EDFP_a_00225


school choice, vouchers, private schools, Indiana, Ohio, Louisiana, test scores, parochial schools, types of private schools