Tom Payzant, Former Boston Superintendent And Education Equity Advocate, Dies

Tom Payzant in 2007. (Courtesy, Harvard Graduate School of Education/Tom Kates)
Tom Payzant in 2007. (Courtesy, Harvard Graduate School of Education/Tom Kates)

Former Boston Public Schools Superintendent, Tom Payzant, has died. He was 80 years old.

According to his family, he passed away on Friday, July 23 surrounded by loved ones after a long struggle with Alzheimer's disease.

Payzant began his career in education in 1963 as a teacher in Belmont High School. He later took on several leadership roles, serving as superintendent of schools in Eugene, Oregon, Oklahoma City and San Diego. Payzant also served as assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Education during President Clinton's first term.

Payzant was perhaps best known for the time he spent as Boston school superintendent starting in 1995. He held that job for 11 years, which is an unusually long tenure for school leadership positions, especially in Boston. Payzant was named Massachusetts Superintendent of the Year in 2006 and was recognized for his role in helping to reduce the student achievement gap.

“He became a staunch advocate for trying to address inequities in education in BPS,” recalled Barbara Fields, a former senior officer in the district's Office of Equity. Payzant advocated for several achievement and opportunity gap policies, especially later in his superintendency.

Fields also remembers admiring his leadership style.

"He was a person you could push back on," she said. "You could have debates with him. He even encouraged it ... and he took it seriously."

On a personal level, Payzant's colleagues describe him as a modest man with a gentle presence.

"He had low ego needs," remembered Paul Reville, the Francis Keppel Professor of Practice of Educational Policy and Administration at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. "He was someone who grasped the theory and knew the research and yet at the same time he was a great translator of theory and research evidence into practice and what you could do practically. And he certainly proved that during his time in Boston."

After his time at Boston Public Schools, Payzant became a senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His work there focused on urban school district reform and education leadership.

Wellesley Superintendent David Lussier remembers working with Payzant during his time at Harvard attending the Urban Superintendents Doctoral Program.

Lussier said that he admired how Payzant seemed to maintain a healthy balance between his personal and professional lives, a lesson he tries to implement in his own life today. But what stuck with Lussier the most was Payzant's passion for his work.

"He really saw it as a calling and vocation," said Lussier. "He took the work of supporting students seriously, and making sure that zip code wasn’t destiny. ... That all students deserve the same fair chance to have an excellent education."

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Carrie Jung Senior Reporter, Education
Carrie is a senior education reporter.



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