Laura Boyce began her career in education policy where she thought she would learn the most: As a teacher. Between teaching and leading, she has worked with students in K through 12 in pretty much every subject over the course of 16 years.
Today, she is executive director of Teach Plus PA, a committee person and first vice-chair for the Second Ward in Philadelphia, and a board member of Girls on the Run (her term ends soon). Boyce is also a fierce advocate for public schools, who staunchly defends the need for greater funding where it is needed most, and works directly with teachers to help them advocate for themselves and their students.
Her work not only gives teachers the tools to use data for transforming instructional practices and contending with policymakers, it also centers teachers in the decision-making process, empowering them to become leaders at the school level, district level, and policy level. That is what makes Laura Boyce a Generation Change Philly fellow.
Boyce’s father is a Presbyterian minister and seminary professor, and her mother was a high school English teacher. “I come from a family of teachers and preachers,” she gently jokes. Entering college, she knew for sure that she wanted to work in social justice, and studied public policy as an undergrad. Her interest in education came from her belief that education is a pathway to social mobility and equity.
“If we can get teachers to the table and empower them with the skills that they need to be able to make their voices heard, that’s going to lead to better outcomes for students,” says Boyce.
“I didn’t always know that I was going to be a teacher,” she says. “At some point, I thought that I was gonna be a lawyer or other things, but I have always thought about how I can make the biggest difference in the world, and for me, that has always just felt like education.” She decided it was best to approach making policy only after she had amassed teaching experience. She minored in education and began teaching in Trenton while still in college. “I really fell in love with the classroom — in love with teaching students.”
Boyce taught English and history at West Philadelphia High School starting in 2007, then at Simon Gratz in North Philly, and eventually became an elementary school principal in Camden. In 2017, she went to work with Teach Plus, a national nonprofit whose mission is to empower teachers to advance equity for students through advocacy and leadership.
“I kind of found my way back to education policy, a little bit more roundabout than I expected,” she laughs. Teach Plus works against barriers to equal opportunity for students through school funding policy, addressing teacher shortages, recruitment and retention of teachers of color, and early childhood education.
Boyce spent three years leading a partnership with the School District of Philadelphia, where Teach Plus coached and supported teachers and principals around shared leadership, helping teachers lead their peers to improve student achievement before shifting into the role of Pennsylvania Executive Director of Teach Plus PA, launching education policy work in Pennsylvania for the first time.
Turning teachers into leaders
Teach Plus developed the T3 program to train experienced teachers to become effective leaders through coaching and support. Teachers trained as leaders have more success investing their colleagues in new instructional approaches when speaking as peers rather than as a supervisor. “Teachers are the closest to students and families. They see the challenges as well as the possibilities happening within their classrooms, but they’re very often left out of decision making,” Boyce explains. “They have the best sort of vantage point to tell you, is this policy working, or are my students getting what they need?”
Boyce’s first role at Teach Plus was to implement T3in five Philly schools: Cayuga Elementary, James R. Lowell Elementary, Alexander K. McClure Elementary, Bayard Taylor Elementary, and B.B. Comegys School. Thirty-six teachers were selected to lead grade-level teams to improve instructional practices and student outcomes.
It is difficult to track progress over time, as the PSD changes the assessment annually. So far, the data indicates that T3 students improved faster than the District average — and faster than a set of comparison schools the District chose specifically for the evaluation. “It’s literally been a different assessment every year for the past five years,” she explains. “You can’t really show change over time in the way we would like, but we have some evidence to indicate student achievement gains.”
Boyce feels the data on teacher efficacy, however, is robust, indicating teacher retention has improved and measuring very high levels of partner satisfaction from the principals and teacher leaders. Data also shows T3 teachers are better at facilitating adult learning and making evidence-based decisions.
The transition to remote learning during the pandemic also confirmed the value of T3, with schools in the program transitioning more smoothly, in part due to shared leadership across teachers and teams. “The pandemic has just made everything harder for every school, every teacher, and every student,” Boyce says. ”But, I think they [the T3 schools] were just a little bit more resilient because they had a foundation for them to be able to recover.”
Turning teachers into advocates
Boyce also leads Teach Plus’s teaching policy fellowship, which helps teachers find their voices as policy advocates and change agents. During the 12-month program, teacher-fellows learn how education policymaking works and take deep dives into the issues, working in small groups to develop campaign goals and advocate for policy change.
Advocacy for what students need to succeed is the primary weapon in the battles taking place over Philadelphia public schools. As of October 2020, the Public Interest Law Center calculated that the Philadelphia School District is underfunded by $5,583 per student.
“If we can get teachers to the table and empower them with the skills that they need to be able to make their voices heard, that’s going to lead to better outcomes for students,” says Boyce. That includes the technical understanding of evidence-based and equity-centered research, but also soft skills like writing an op-ed, meeting with a legislator, or writing a policy memo. “Whether it’s In their classrooms, or in the policy landscape and they’re speaking to legislators or folks at the Department of Education,” she says, “they’re bringing their real-life experience and those stories of not only themselves but their students and their families to those conversations.”
Advocacy for what students need to succeed is the primary weapon in the battles taking place over Philadelphia public schools. As of October 2020, the Public Interest Law Center calculated that the Philadelphia School District is underfunded by $5,583 per student. This is the impetus behind their lawsuit against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, alleging that despite the constitutional mandate to provide a “thorough and efficient” education, students in the poorest school districts are receiving on average nearly $5,000 less per student than those in wealthier districts. Moreover, the 100 least funded districts are home to over half of Pennsylvania’s Black and Brown students, students in poverty, and English learners.
Some state lawmakers have circumvented the question of whether resources are being distributed equally by instead doubling down on whether funding education for poor students is even necessary. John Krill, a lawyer for Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, asked during the trial, “What use would someone on the McDonald’s career track have for Algebra 1?”
Boyce’s vehement response in a Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed called out both the unfairness and coded racism of lawmakers and passionately expressed her feelings about her students:
As a former educator who taught in the underfunded Philadelphia public schools, I’ve taught — and loved — the students dismissed by lawmakers as less “industrious” and destined for the “McDonald’s track.” I’ve seen their curiosity, brilliance, ambition, and work ethic: Verónica, who dreamed of becoming a scientist and inventing new vaccines and miracle drugs; Bryan, who worked multiple jobs and still completed every homework assignment; Josh and Cashey, who started their own lunchtime book club to nerd out about their favorite pleasure reads. I’ve also seen the obstacles placed in their way, both by external factors like poverty and gun violence as well as the school system itself, which provides them fewer resources and opportunities than their peers in wealthier suburbs.
“At the end of the day, you can’t separate it from race and class,” states Boyce. “I don’t believe that if we adequately funded Philadelphia schools, all of their problems would go away overnight, but we also haven’t tried adequately funding them. So to say, well, they’re not performing well enough, so we shouldn’t give them the resources that other schools serving far fewer students, far fewer students in poverty, fewer students with disabilities, and fewer English language learners have, and then blame them when their performance is worse? That just doesn’t make sense. There’s not a logical argument that you can make that doesn’t ultimately come down to either implicit or explicit racism and classism.”
Dena Driscoll is the director of development and communications at the Public Interest Law Center, which also works with partners like Teach Plus PA to support advocacy efforts. “Laura was a go-getter in the meetings,” Driscoll wrote of Boyce. “Making smart comments and always willing to go the extra mile. I immediately asked her for virtual coffee because I could tell she was someone who cared deeply about education and making it better.”
The work ahead (there’s a lot)
As the five-year partnership with the five original T3 schools concludes, Teach Plus PA, whose current grant period is at an end, and the Philadelphia School District, which will be getting a new superintendent, are trying to determine what their work will look like in the future. There is potential for a renewal or perhaps a “2.0 version” of T3. In the meantime, there is also the partnership with Independence Mission Schools, a Catholic network, which employs a similar model, adapted to smaller schools where there usually isn’t more than one teacher per grade by allowing teachers to virtually facilitate cross-school teams.
“For as long as I have been involved in Philadelphia education … we just have not ever had the kind of transformative leadership that empowers teachers, principals, and families to be a part of the improvement process,” says Boyce.
Teach Plus is also getting ready to launch a new program in Pittsburgh called Equity Leadership Institute, working with six to eight school districts in the Pittsburgh area to support diversifying their education workforce. Teams that include teachers, school leaders, and district leaders will be trained to understand the research and their own data so they can develop plans to recruit and retain teachers of color.
“The common thread is empowering teachers to take leadership over both policy and practice issues that impact student success,” says Boyce.
Also looming large for Philadelphia public schools is the growing teacher shortage. Over the last 10 years, teacher prep program graduates and instructional certificates issued have declined by two-thirds over the last 10 years. Coupled with the increase in early retirements and resignations in the wake of the pandemic, and the potential future exodus of teachers self-reporting dissatisfaction and burnout on surveys, Boyce is deeply concerned. “We’re kind of in this state where it was already getting bad, it got worse during the pandemic, and it could continue to get a lot worse,” she says. “Everybody I talk to in education it’s their very top concern, and It’s not getting enough attention in Harrisburg. It’s gotta be the number one priority.”
Teach Plus is developing a statewide coalition to discuss the problem and hopes to make it a big issue in the upcoming gubernatorial and other legislative races in November. “When you ask what’s going to determine the success of Philadelphia in the future — and I think this is true for almost every district — if we don’t come up with a plan to get more people entering and staying in the field of teaching, then nothing much else is gonna matter including money,” says Boyce.
Driscoll is confident that Boyce’s work is moving Philadelphia schools in the right direction, saying, “I think Laura will continue to help develop a generation of engaged and informed teachers who can adeptly share with elected officials what is needed to strengthen our public schools in Philadelphia and across the state.”
Boyce believes that the two things Philadelphia schools need more than anything are funding and effective leadership. “For as long as I have been involved in Philadelphia education, which is about 15 years now, we just have not ever had the kind of transformative leadership that empowers teachers, principals, and families to be a part of the improvement process, to help to shape how resources are spent and how priorities are set, and how we go about trying to change our really broken system.”
The Philadelphia Citizen is partnering with the nonprofit Keepers of the Commons on the “Generation Change Philly” series to provide educational and networking opportunities to the city’s most dynamic change-makers.
MORE FROM THE CITIZEN ON EDUCATIONLaura Boyce. Photo by Sabina Louise Pierce