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Survey offers study of working climate in Buffalo classrooms

Can Buffalo schools improve student performance by motivating teachers?

The answer may lie in a first-of-its kind survey – by an education expert and the man behind health care quality measurements – to gauge teacher perceptions of the working climate in city schools and how much that environment motivates them to excel.

Educators often complain that their field is too complex to reduce to easy-to-understand measurements. But Peter Loehr and Bruce Boissonnault think they’ve found a measurement that does apply in “complex environments” like classrooms: intrinsic motivation.

Their 25-question survey got responses from 1,763 teachers in 47 city schools on everything from how well principals help faculty work together to how frequently an administrator visits the classroom. The goal: Figure out how much school climate helps or hinders teachers.

Anyone who’s followed the district’s travails won’t be surprised at the results: Only four schools scored above the half-way mark, meaning there is a lot of room for improvement.

In fact, Loehr and Boissonnault report the results as “opportunity scores,” because they give teachers and principals a chance to work together to improve things.

Loehr – a SUNY Buffalo State associate professor of elementary education and reading – said research shows the most valuable work people do in complex environments like schools is done because of intrinsic motivation.

“The survey reflects that there are significant differences in intrinsic motivation in the schools in Buffalo,” he said.

So what would better survey scores mean for students?

“It should translate into higher student achievement ... higher test scores, higher morale, higher engagement,” Loehr said. “They should see improvement in all of those areas.”

The schools weren’t publicly identified in the first survey, but will be in subsequent ones, after having time to improve, said Boissonnault, head of the Niagara Health Quality Coalition that developed the widely-used hospital ratings to empower consumers. The Buffalo Teachers Federation cooperated in the survey, but did not fund it or write the questions, he said.

The union of principals and administrators who set the school climate was not involved. Interim Superintendent Donald Ogilvie said that shortcoming “raises concerns and suspicions” and causes him to question the survey’s value.

Ogilvie noted the pressures principals are under, as well as the district climate set by its most observable element – a bickering School Board – and said a survey focused on building leaders without their input “is not fair to any principal or administrator.”

Boissonnault downplayed criticism of the process: “This is good science, and the district leadership should care ... Let’s focus on the results.”

The surveys will continue for another four years, with schools identified in future years.

Just as the spotlight from the hospital surveys spurred improvement, this one should, too.

Principals may not like the way it was done. But they will like even less being spotlighted as running a school with a lousy working climate – especially if the survey results correlate with student achievement data.