Biden picks San Diego Unified superintendent as deputy education secretary; district names interim leader

San Diego Unified School District Superintendent Cindy Marten spoke at Lincoln High School in 2015.
San Diego Unified School District Superintendent Cindy Marten speaks during the State of the District Address in 2015.

President-elect Joe Biden has nominated San Diego Unified School District Superintendent Cindy Marten as his deputy secretary of education, according to an announcement Jan. 18.

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 secretary of education, Miguel Cardona, Connecticut’s schools chief. Marten’s nomination 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 Jan. 18.

Marten will remain superintendent until she is confirmed by the Senate, which district officials expect may happen in February.

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

In a closed meeting Jan. 17, the San Diego Unified board chose Area Superintendent Lamont Jackson to serve as interim superintendent once Marten moves on to her new position.

Area Superintendent Lamont Jackson, pictured in 2016, has been chosen to serve as San Diego Unified's interim superintendent.

Jackson, who oversees the district area that includes Morse, Mira Mesa, Clairemont and University City high schools, was previously the district’s chief human resources officer. Jackson will remain interim superintendent until the end of the 2021 calendar year. The board will discuss in coming weeks how to search for a new superintendent.

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

Last year, San Diego Unified had an 88.6 percent graduation rate, better than the statewide average and up from 86.6 percent in 2017.

Biden also highlighted Marten’s 17 years as a classroom teacher and 10 years 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 day care 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. In 2019 it also was praised by the Learning Policy Institute, whose chief executive heads the California state school board, for outperforming other California districts.

Strategies the district has used in an effort 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 7½ 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.”

In a letter to San Diego Unified families Jan. 18, Marten wrote: “I have had the joy of watching some of our students learn to read for the first time. I’ve seen others become the first in their families to graduate from college.

“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.”

Marten, who is from a Chicago suburb, moved with her family to San Diego at a young age. She attended San Diego Unified’s Hardy Elementary and Horace Mann Middle schools as well as the private La Jolla Country Day School.

Marten has said she was inspired to become a teacher by her older brother Charley Cohen, who is developmentally disabled. She has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse and a master’s in curriculum and
instruction from UC San Diego.