San Diego superintendent will bring years of teaching to deputy education secretary post 

January 19, 2021

Former San Diego Unified superintendent Cindy Marten

On the campaign trail, Joe Biden promised to select a teacher to be his secretary of education. Just before Christmas, in a surprise choice, he named Connecticut Commissioner of Education Miguel Cardona to the post. Cardona has been a teacher — albeit for only about five years before becoming a principal and district administrator.

Biden has now doubled down on his pro-teacher stance by nominating San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten to be deputy secretary of education, the number two position in the U.S. Department of Education.

With Cardona, Marten will play a pivotal role in advocating for and implementing President-elect Biden’s expansive education agenda, including getting funds to states, so they can open the majority of their elementary schools within 100 days of his taking office.

With the Senate soon to be controlled by Democrats, principal elements of Biden’s agenda now have far more of a chance of actually being implemented.

She will also have major responsibilities in managing the entire department, and to fill in for Cardona as acting secretary when needed.

Marten has been superintendent of San Diego Unified since 2013. But before that she had been a teacher for 17 years, as well as principal of San Diego’s Central Elementary School, a school in the diverse City Heights neighborhood where 96% of students qualify for free and reduced-priced meals.

It was after several years at Central Elementary that she made the virtually unheard of jump from an elementary school principal to being superintendent of her district — not just any district, but the second-largest district in California and the 20th-largest in the nation.

“What you get with Cindy is a teacher first,” said Thomas Courtney, a fifth-grade teacher at Chollas-Mead Elementary School in San Diego. Courtney observed Marten in workshops and meetings during her years as a teacher. As superintendent, he said, “she has clearly kept teaching to more than a test at the forefront of her agenda.”

In a tweet on Monday she wrote, “I am honored to serve alongside @teachcardona to restore our education system — putting teachers, students and parents first. Work Hard. Be Kind. Dream Big. Let’s do this!” Marten tweeted on Monday morning.

While Cardona spent almost all his professional career in the Meriden Public Schools, a district with about 9,000 students, Marten will bring the experience of teaching in, and heading, a large urban school district.

“Work hard, Be Kind, Dream Big” has long been her motto. In an interview with EdSource this spring, she described how earlier in her career she had to grapple with the issue of “learning loss,” which is now a central concern of hers and other educators as a result of the pandemic. She recalled when she was a reading specialist at an elementary school where half its students lived in poverty. Many of them lived in a low-income Section 8 housing complex across the street from the school. “They would go home for the summer, and they would experience summer slide or learning loss, because they weren’t reading or being exposed to books, and so they couldn’t keep their reading levels up,” she recalled.

She came up with the idea of asking the managers of the housing complex if they could come up with an empty apartment they could donate for the summer. “Let me have an apartment, I’ll get funding, and we’ll open up a reading center for the summer,” she proposed. That is in fact what happened, with positive results.

Both Cardona and Marten must be confirmed by the U.S. Senate, but that is likely to be a formality because of the shift of power in the chamber.

Marten’s appointment would make it even more likely that the relationship between California and the department will be the opposite of the contentious one that has existed during Betsy DeVos’ tenure as secretary. Spearheaded by Attorney General Xavier Becerra, California has sued DeVos and her department multiple times on issues ranging from student loan forgiveness to opposing her efforts to steer coronavirus relief funds to private schools.

The relationship between California and the Obama administration was also a contentious one. Former Gov. Jerry Brown and state education leaders clashed with Education Secretary Arne Duncan on numerous issues. Those included California’s mostly failed efforts to secure funds through the Race to the Top program and the department’s refusal to grant California a waiver from some of the most onerous provisions of the now expired No Child Left Behind law.

The relationship between California and Washington is expected to be a smoother one under a Biden presidency, and even more so following Marten’s nomination. Linda Darling-Hammond, the president of California’s State Board of Education, headed up President-elect Biden’s education transition team. She is also close to Marten, and they have communicated with each other regularly during the pandemic.

San Diego Unified is generally recognized to have made significant academic progress while Marten has been superintendent.

On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, San Diego was the only district in 2019 whose tests scores significantly exceeded the average scores of 27 large districts in both math and English language arts on the fourth- and eighth-grade tests. Since 2003, San Diego student scores in fourth-grade math have risen every year except one.

A report last fall by the Learning Policy Institute, which is headed by Darling-Hammond, identified over 100 “positive outlier” school districts in California. Those are districts in which African American, Latino and white students achieved at higher-than-predicted levels. San Diego Unified was one of the districts. “Despite the wide achievement gaps across the state between students from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, the district has excelled at supporting the learning of all students,” a Learning Policy Institute case study concluded.

Marten will be the second Californian in a quarter century to be deputy secretary of education. From 1996 to 2000, Marshall (Mike) Smith, the former dean of the Stanford University Graduate School of Education, occupied that position in the Clinton Administration when Richard Riley was education secretary.

“No matter what, the job is hard, but it is now far harder than it ever was,” said Smith, referring to the difficulties of managing the department with most staff presumably working remotely due to the pandemic. The job will be further complicated by what Kirst called the “hollowing out” of the department under the leadership of Secretary Betsy DeVos, with large numbers of its most experienced staff leaving or pushed out.

Biden has yet to name an undersecretary of education, or a half dozen assistant secretaries to run different aspects of his agenda. The last Californian to be undersecretary was Ted Mitchell during the Obama administration. He is currently president of the American Council on Education.

What the exact roles of the political appointees will be has yet to be announced, and is likely to differ from how the department was organized under DeVos.

Regardless, Chollas-Mead elementary teacher Courtney, who is a member of EdSource’s teacher advisory panel, is hoping that Marten can have the same impact nationally as she has had in San Diego.

“I know that first and foremost we will have someone directly under Miguel Cardona who has taught at a school like mine, been successful at a school like mine, and after leaving (the classroom), still made decisions with the best interests of students like mine in mind,” he said. “If she can do that for students who live in the poorest neighborhoods in San Diego, she is going to do right by all kids.”

John Fensterwald contributed to this report. 

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