Biden chooses San Diego Unified superintendent as deputy education secretary

President-elect Joe Biden nominated San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten as his deputy secretary of education, the Biden administration announced Monday.

Marten, who has led California’s second-largest school district of roughly 100,000 students since 2013, is expected to serve in the post under the leadership of Biden’s nominated Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, Connecticut’s schools chief. Marten’s nomination also awaits Senate approval.

“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.

Biden cited San Diego Unified’s graduation rate and reading growth on national standardized tests, saying both exceed those of other large school districts.

He also highlighted her 17 years as a classroom teacher and her 10 years working as principal at Central Elementary in City Heights, where she helped build a biliteracy program, an arts program, a school garden, preschool and after-school programs, a daycare for employees’ children and a community health and wellness center.

Before arriving at Central, Marten worked in Poway Unified as a teacher and literacy specialist, and as a teacher at Beth Israel Day School.

In 2019 San Diego Unified was one of two large urban districts nationwide to outperform the average for urban districts on national math and reading test scores for fourth- and eighth-graders.

The district has also received praise in recent years from multiple think tanks that highlighted the district’s practices as successes, including the Learning Policy Institute, whose CEO Linda Darling-Hammond heads the California state school board and Biden’s education transition team.

Some of the strategies the district has used to improve schools, include expanding arts programs, focusing on literacy instruction and using data and feedback to improve teaching and student learning, Marten has said.

Under her leadership San Diego Unified secured a $3.5 billion bond program that has been funding technology and large-scale makeovers and upgrades to schools.

The district also has implemented several racial equity reforms, including changing the way students are graded to be less punitive, requiring “restorative” rather than punitive discipline, and creating an ethnic studies requirement for high school graduation.

Marten’s term has not been without controversy. San Diego Unified has remained closed to regular in-person instruction since the start of the pandemic out of caution and has been providing in-person support to few students, generating anger among parents who say children are falling behind and suffering emotionally.

When the school board renewed Marten’s contract in 2019, the board said she had ensured stability in the district and raised performance for Black and Latino students, but failed to turn around Lincoln High School, one of the district’s historically struggling schools. The board also said the district had not succeeded in lowering student chronic absenteeism rates or halting declining enrollment, particularly in preschool.

San Diego Unified Board President Richard Barrera said Biden’s choice signifies that Biden wants to invest and scale up the strategies San Diego Unified uses to improve schools.

“We’re very proud that the work that Cindy has led in San Diego for the past seven and a half years has been recognized on a national level, and now the president-elect wants to bring that work across the country,” Barrera said. “I think it’s a very important moment for our kids because it signals a seriousness on the part of the federal government to invest in public education as a priority, and that’s something that frankly we really have never seen.”

Marten said she has spoken with the school board about ensuring a “seamless transition” once she is confirmed and leaves the district.

“I have had the joy of watching some of our students learn to read for the first time. I’ve e seen others become the first in their families to graduate from college,” she wrote in a letter to San Diego Unified families Monday morning.

“I had the privilege of seeing the middle school I attended be replaced by a brand new state-of-the-art building as part of an $8 billion bond program. It is the love and support of my hometown that has made all of this possible, and I am deeply grateful for having been entrusted with the sacred responsibility of educating your children.”

The district plans to hold a 1 p.m. press conference to describe next steps.

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