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HGSE Remembers Thomas Payzant

A tireless advocate for urban education and a noted member of the HGSE community — as faculty and alum — Payzant passed away on July 23.
Tom Payzant

Thomas Payzant in 2007

Photo: Tom Kates

Harvard Graduate School of Education is mourning the loss of former faculty member Thomas Payzant, M.A.T.’63, C.A.S.’66, Ed.D.’68. A former superintendent of Boston Public Schools (BPS), Payzant passed away on July 23 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s, according to his family.

Throughout his career, Payzant was an advocate for urban school districts, pursuing reform initiatives, developing school leaders, and advancing ways to connect research, policy, and practice. As superintendent of BPS for 11 years, he led significant reform efforts that helped narrow the achievement gap and increase student performance on both state and national assessment exams. 

Under his leadership, BPS was recognized as a national model for urban education reform, and in 1998, he was named Massachusetts Superintendent of the Year. He also received the Richard R. Green Award for Excellence in Urban Education from the Council on Great City Schools in 2004 and was named one of eight “Public Officials of the Year” by Governing Magazine in 2005. The district won the 2006 Broad Prize under his leadership for overall performance and improvement in student achievement while reducing achievement gaps by income and race.

“Tom was first and foremost a generous, kind, humble human being,” says Senior Lecturer Elizabeth City, who worked as a coach in BPS when Payzant was superintendent and would go on to study and work with him as a doctoral student and HGSE faculty member. “He was also a very committed, thoughtful leader. He was so focused and clear on what Boston was going to do to serve children well — his whole-school system was always about developing leaders and teachers to serve children well.”

Payzant previously held superintendent positions across the country, including in San Diego where he was awarded the McGraw Prize for the impact of his leadership on the lives of students, as well as in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Eugene, Oregon; and Springfield, Pennsylvania. 

“I wanted to create a whole system of schools that would be improved, so that my legacy would not be a few more good schools,” Payzant told Education Next in 2006.

Payzant also shaped education policy at the national level and, prior to serving as superintendent in Boston, worked for the U.S. Department of Education. As an assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education in the Clinton administration, he would have a lasting impact on education policy and reform as he garnered bipartisan support for the passage of the Improving America’s Schools Act. 

He was recognized for his national leadership and service in the advancement of education opportunity with the College Board Medal for Distinguished Service to Education in 2006, and to those who knew and worked alongside him, it was his warmth and deep-seated belief in the transformative power of education that made him inspiring.

“Whether Tom was reminding a fourth-grade teacher about the importance of her work, collaborating with his administrative team to redesign schooling for Boston’ students, or teaching and mentoring aspiring administrators at HGSE, he was always wise, fair, steady, and kind,” says professor Susan Moore Johnson

Senior lecturer Karen Mapp, who worked as Deputy Superintendent of Family and Community Engagement of BPS while Payzant was superintendent, recalls that his dedication to children and families was one of the distinguishing qualities of his leadership.

“Tom Payzant was the epitome of a servant leader,” says Mapp. “It was an honor to work with and learn from him. He always put children and families first, and was one of the most humble and dedicated human beings I’ve ever met. We have big shoes to fill.”

While he would join the HGSE faculty in 2006 and serve as a senior lecturer until 2012, he was not new to the HGSE community, having started his career as an educator after completing the M.A.T. program at HGSE in 1963. Payzant also completed his C.A.S. in 1966 and Ed.D. in 1968, all at HGSE. 

As a longstanding member of the HGSE community and an influential leader, Payzant is remembered not just for his work in schools but for his thoughtfulness as a colleague.

“I know many in our community and across the field of education think highly of Tom not only as a colleague and mentor but as a friend,” wrote Dean Bridget Long in an email to HGSE faculty. “For those who knew him well, I hope that the outpouring of stories about the wonderful impact he had will give you comfort during this difficult time.”

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