a conversation with…
Cindy Marten
Prior to her confirmation as U.S. Deputy Education Secretary in May, Cindy Marten served eight years as superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District, as principal for 10 years and as a classroom teacher for 17 years. The Biden administration has cited Marten’s work as principal of Central Elementary School in City Heights and San Diego USD’s above-average graduation rates and growth in reading test scores as reasons for her nomination. And Education Secretary Miguel Cardona has commended her work in San Diego during the pandemic, during which students received laptops and 20 million free meals and the district provided free school COVID-19 testing.
Cindy Marten
Just one month after her confirmation, Marten spoke to CSBA about her preparation for her new role, the difficulties of a remote transition and long- and short-term goals.
Going from a district superintendent to U.S. Deputy Education Secretary is quite the jump. How do you think your previous roles as a superintendent and a principal have prepared you for this?

I’m not a stranger to jumps. When I became superintendent in 2013, I’d been an elementary school principal, so at that time that was considered quite the jump as well. I will say that as a superintendent, you’re a manager, and when I became superintendent there were 16,000 employees in San Diego Unified — it’s really that work over the past eight years that has prepared me for the chief operating officer functionalities of the role that I’m playing now as deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of Education.

During that time as superintendent, what I learned was my ability to work with a lot of state leaders, superintendents and principals in that role, and I got to work with all the critical stakeholders who are really at the forefront of reopening equitably. I’ve been in their shoes, I’ve sat across the table from them and alongside them, and I’m really eager to do what I know matters most, which is building strong relationships and partnerships in service of what our students need.

At the end of the day, what these previous roles of being principal and superintendent have prepared me for is this idea that, at my core, I’m a teacher. And so, what I’m bringing to my new role is my experience and my frame of reference and my commitment. I bring that with me wherever I go, no matter what my title is. I might have a new title and a new office now. I might be working in a different city. But at the end of the day, I still work for our children. And that’s what makes the mission simple and clear.

What has been the most difficult part of the transition to the national level so far?

I thought I was an expert at acronyms, but there’s a whole new level of acronyms now and understanding the bureaucracy at the federal level. What are the approval processes? What does it take to move work along so we can deliver for students? I’m very much a student of the system, so the better I understand the system, its approval processes and acronyms, the better able I am to deliver for students. I know the work has a learning curve, but I understand the vision and mission is to deliver for kids. I’m just learning the new context.

I will say one of the more difficult parts of starting a new job remotely, which is what I’m doing — spending some time in D.C. and still some time in San Diego while I prepare for my move — I’m onboarding in a remote environment. But relationships matter and making authentic connections with people who we’re going to work alongside of. In order to work closely with staff and teachers and communities, it’s important that we have authentic connections with one another. I have started to meet with people as I make my move to D.C., but I’m really looking forward to having more in-person opportunities to connect with the team that’s going to deliver for our children across the country.

What are some of your short- and long-term goals as U.S. Deputy Education Secretary?

The short-term priority for me is super easy and clear and it’s one that I share, of course, with the education secretary and the President. Our President has been clear and Education Secretary Cardona has been clear that 100 percent of our schools will offer five-day in-person instruction to all students. That’s front and center and you’ll hear it in everything that we put forward. It’s not just opening five days in person, but there’s support that comes with that. The Education Department’s here to support states and districts in schools as they work to make that happen. The Biden administration has made a historic investment in education. There’s $130 billion through the American Rescue Plan so that we can build back better than we were before the pandemic.

Moving forward, more long-term [priorities] focus on several things, first of which is providing every child and family with access to affordable early childhood education. The second priority is to ensure that every student, no matter what their background, their zip code, or their circumstance, is able to have access to high-quality education. And that includes students with disabilities and multilingual learners. The third ongoing priority is going to be the ways in which we’re re-imagining college and career pathways and making higher education more accessible and more affordable. And a fourth one would be respecting the teaching profession for what it is, and to diversify the teacher workforce and have that be focused on nationally.

The last one is healing, learning and growing together, and thinking creatively. How do we use this opportunity and what we’ve been through here to invest in innovation in our classrooms, in our communities? That we understand from great challenge comes great learning, and the great learning has happened. And what does innovation look like going forward? What have we learned and how do these lessons carry forward in our overall work to focus on students?

And when I say we’re re-imagining the future of education and setting a new baseline for quality for all of our students, how do we do this? I think it’s important that we need to make sure in the innovation, we look at what gives our students joy, what feeds their souls, and the same thing for our educators. How do educators, school staff and students have things that bring them joy? And so, looking forward in the priorities: academics, sports, music, extracurriculars and connecting social-emotional learning.

What are some of the accomplishments you’re most proud of from your time as San Diego USD superintendent?

I would say effectively reopening our schools in April was key. I’m proud of the work that the district did in that area. Another thing that I’m very proud of is developing and funding a community schools initiative. The district placed community wellness centers in high schools and extended our counseling services in high-needs communities. We’ve defined equity as, “each and every student gets what they need, when they need it, in the way that they need it.” During my tenure in San Diego, we invested $500 million in facilities improvements in low-income neighborhoods and focused on the community schools initiative that looked at overall community and family health and well-being. I’m very proud of that work.

And along those lines, [we] received the Gold recognition in the American Heart Association’s Workplace Health Achievement Index for our efforts to support employee wellness. And multiple schools in San Diego Unified also received the America’s Healthy Schools award that came from the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. You can see pervasively across the district, through my focus on employee well-being, that it wasn’t just lip service. It was a real, clear commitment school-by-school, department-by-department, and I’m very proud of them. That’s long-term, sustainable work that’s going to continue long after I leave.

Another thing I’m very proud of are the results of an equity-focused funding model that California invested in, the Local Control Funding Formula. San Diego Unified was all-in on what it means for funding, and the results of that are published and widely known. The Learning Policy Institute and the research led there with Linda Darling-Hammond showed that San Diego students outperformed what you would expect based on their socioeconomic status. That’s delivering on equity and I’m very proud of that work. And CSBA has been a great partner in a lot of the work that I’ve done over the last eight years.

I’m also proud of the results in the high National Assessment of Educational Progress, which show what the commitment to an equitable-funding formula delivers in terms of outcomes for students. Those results matter, they show what investment and clear focus on good teaching in the classroom will afford in terms of outcomes for students.

San Diego USD’s above-average graduation rates and growth in reading test scores were reported as some of the reasons behind your nomination. Will those continue to be some of your priorities at the federal level?

Graduation rates and literacy will always be a priority for me. I’m always going to be a champion for meaningful graduation and for literacy. That’s core to what a solid education affords our nation’s youth. And it’s in my DNA — you don’t leave that when you take a new job. That’s what I believe in. That’s what I know matters for children. And quite frankly, that’s why I am thrilled to be part of an administration that is equally committed to students’ long-term success, and that puts equity at the forefront, like I did for the past eight years in my role as superintendent.

And that’s why the American Families Plan that was proposed by President Joe Biden this spring is visionary. It’s a once-in-a-generation investment that will transform our education system by adding four years of free public education for every student — two years of preK and two years of community college — and invest in historically Black colleges and universities and more. It’s central and core to what’s already in my DNA and I’m thrilled to be part of an administration that has those commitments very front and center in what we’re doing. And that’s why we’re working to create a very strong through line between preschool and higher ed, so that we prioritize lifelong learning as an expectation nationally, not an exception. That’s a mission and vision that is very personal to me.

What can California schools learn from what’s happening in the rest of the country? What insight does California have to offer public schools in other states?

It’s probably too early for me to weigh in on that first one yet, so it’s better to talk about what I think people can learn from California and San Diego. This is a chance for great innovation because of all this investment that I think people can look to what’s out there. How are people deciding the best ways to use this investment for long-term sustainable growth? Find the best practices, find what’s been working in your local districts, and then think about how you scale those. And you don’t have to redo your priorities just because there’s more money. You just have the money to invest in the priorities that everybody holds so true. I know every district has plans that they’ve developed locally, that they haven’t been able to fully implement due to possible lack of funding. And now they have the opportunity to do so, and I think that’s how we’re going to learn best from each other.

When California embarked on an equity-focused funding formula in 2013 with LCFF and the Local Control and Accountability Plan — the idea that the state would give districts more flexibility with their funds, that they had to be more accountable to their communities, was great. And that meant that you were going to work with your local communities to deliver equitable programs, actions and services for youth. And then that there would be accountability that went with it. It was equity-focused, so districts who needed more funding [to serve] disadvantaged students got more funding. Where there’s greater need, there needs to be greater support and investment. And I think folks can learn from that model, that law, that was signed into effect the day I started as superintendent. I started July 1, 2013, and that was the day LCFF was signed into law. And so I’m the LCFF baby superintendent. I tracked with it from day one. And I think policy decisions that have equity at the center and funding decisions like California made, help people see what happens when you actually put your money where your mouth is, so to speak: You believe in equity and your budget reflects that.

And I think something other districts could learn specifically from San Diego is the applicable philosophy that when you give districts more flexibility and greater support, they can actually do more for their students. And if you focus on equity, you put your resources out in the communities with the most significant needs. In this case, let’s think about those hardest hit by the pandemic. Where there’s greater need, there needs to be greater support and resources. When you do that, and then you give districts flexibility to spend the funds on what makes the most sense to them for their community, then they will put the money in measures that will lift up student performance and attract and retain the great teachers that our students deserve.

What changes in the public school system would you ultimately like to see as communities begin to recover from this pandemic?

The changes are exactly what the President’s priorities are. Let’s be clear on what the investments are, and the investments around community schools and how you’re going to work together to create the priorities. I think we’ll continue to focus on working together with our communities. We don’t do things to our schools and for our schools, we do them with our students and our community to deliver on some of these big commitments around a high-quality education for every student. At the end of the day, what will serving the whole child look like and how do we use those investments for a whole child approach?

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.