What Cindy Marten’s Rise Tells Us About the State of Education Politics

Education

What Cindy Marten’s Rise Tells Us About the State of Education Politics

Cindy Marten embodies a new guiding principle in national education politics: The way to a better public school system does not lie in criticizing its faults, but relentless positivity about its promise. 

Illustration by Adriana Heldiz

In October 2013, Cindy Marten had been superintendent for fewer than four months. She stood in Kearny High School’s auditorium and made a case for a shining new world of public education that would sweep away the past era of reforms. 

“I think 20 years from now we might look back on this past decade and wonder what happened – wonder how could we have allowed this to happen to our children and nation, when we became mesmerized by a single score as the one and only measure of a quality public education,” she said. 

That rhetoric was ahead of its time for a big city schools chief in 2013. New York was coming off the Michael Bloomberg years of closing “failing schools.” In Chicago, Rahm Emmanuel was deadlocked with the teachers union. And across California, many had been dazzled by the promise of charter school expansion to close the achievement gap. 

Months earlier, Marten was an elementary school principal. But at that moment on stage, she clearly felt imbued with an ambitious sense of destiny. 

“The promise of public education in our nation is resting on what San Diego Unified does. People are not just watching me. They’re watching us to get this right,” she said.

Seven years later, that sense of destiny seems to have been well placed. Marten has been nominated to serve as deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Education – putting her on a path like few others, from the classroom to big city superintendent and Washington. 

Marten made big promises in that first major speech. The key, she said, to improving public schools lay within the public school system itself. People need not look to outside reformers. For every persistent problem – from the achievement gap to the disproportionate suspension rates for Black children – there was a traditional public school in San Diego already solving it. 

She called it the theory of Dorothy. In “The Wizard of Oz,” Dorothy went looking for meaning far away from Kansas. But she discovered “everything she needed was right here at home,” said Marten. “I believe in that for our district.” 

In a theatrical display, Marten put on a pair of ruby slippers, clicked her heels three times and invited her audience to picture the public school system they wanted for their children. “There’s no place like home,” she said. “These are our schools to create.”

Now as her tenure ends, she can make credible claims of academic progress, but the achievement gap remains just as real as ever and the suspension rate of Black students is largely unchanged. 

Her rise is just as much a sign of changing politics as promises delivered. Democrats have moved away from charter-school-heavy reforms and strategies like merit pay – just as Marten foretold. They are more likely to support a public school system led by educators instead of reformers. 

Marten embodies a new guiding principle in national education politics: The way to a better public school system does not lie in criticizing its faults, but relentless positivity about its promise. 

How to Judge Success

Marten’s first state of the district address was full of high-minded rhetoric. But, at the time, it also contained concrete plans for achieving and judging success. 

Marten didn’t think schools and teachers should or could be judged by a single test score. But she did think they could be judged by wider and more complex measures. 

“I’ve got no problem at all with using a measure, but we’ve recently lost the dialogue about how to create and measure a quality school, and we have to resuscitate that dialogue,” she said. “You have a right to know as a taxpayer how our schools are doing, and I’d better give you a good way to measure that.”

District officials had already set in motion Vision 2020, a plan that promised quality schools in every neighborhood by 2020. Vision 2020 laid out what it called the 12 indicators of a quality school – which included teacher quality, access to a broad and challenging curriculum, expanded professional development and closing the achievement gap.

Marten indicated that she would come up with data points to match the 12 indicators. But the data points never materialized.

Given the lack of measurements, I tried to create some in previous reporting projects. One measured teacher experience at each school in the district. It found schools with higher poverty levels were more likely to have less experienced teachers – indicating that the students most in need of a high-quality teacher may be least likely to have one.

Another project evaluated school safety in San Diego Unified, using a statewide survey that asks students if they feel safe at school. It found wide disparities across the district. At some elementary schools 100 percent of students felt safe. At others, that percentage dropped into the 50s and below.  

In my two and a half years covering education in San Diego, Marten has never granted me an interview, despite multiple requests. (A spokeswoman for the district also denied a request to interview Marten for this story.) After the safety story came out, I wanted to ask Marten what the data told her about her progress toward achieving quality schools in every neighborhood. 

I caught up with her at an open press event, but Marten didn’t take any questions when it ended. So I followed her out of the building and asked some questions as she went to her next engagement. Her response was very reminiscent of that 2013 speech. 

“What I think is important is that our state has made a decision that we’re not gonna have a single test score that’s gonna measure our schools anymore. We are gonna look at a robust set of multiple measures, including student safety,” she said.

Marten said the district used a tool to measure student safety throughout the day, but wouldn’t say what the tool was. She hopped in her car and headed off to an event in Los Angeles. 

Cindy Marten’s Rise

Before she became superintendent, Marten was already well known in San Diego.  

She led Central Elementary, a high-poverty school with a large population of English-learners in City Heights that had historically under-performed. In her five years at the school, Marten gained a reputation for turning it around – though she disliked that description, because it sounded as if a school’s success or failure rested on one person. 

She frequently appeared at public events, sharing a gospel of investing in public schools. She spoke at board of education meetings, invited reporters to see her school and maintained relationships with board members. 

Scott Barnett was one of the board members who voted to hire her in 2013 and had visited Central frequently. The first thing that stuck out to him about Marten is how much time she spent in the classroom. 

“The most important thing I learned is that principals should be in the classroom every day – to be there to both watch the teachers and watch the kids,” he said. “Most sit in their office like a little bunker. … I could see principals who did isolate themselves for a variety of reasons they were less effective in managing and ultimately the education of kids.”

Marten also worked hard to get families invested in her school, said Barnett. Despite Central’s large percentage of non-English speaking and undocumented families, parents felt welcome on campus and spent lots of time there. Good test scores or no, most people who went onto Central’s campus described the feeling of being at a “good school.” 

“She had a charisma about her and that helped her ability to work with all these various groups,” said Barnett. “As I recall, when she had teachers with issues she wouldn’t go and say, ‘Fix this or you’re fired.’ She had a way of holding a mirror up to people and letting them reflect on themselves.”

Barnett met with Marten frequently when she was a principal. She helped him learn how things actually worked inside schools, he said. So when fellow board member Richard Barrera suggested Marten for superintendent, Barnett didn’t hesitate. In a closed hiring process, board members voted 5-0 to select her as superintendent.

Barrera had been following Marten’s career since he was elected to the board in 2008. He believed in the work she was doing at Central, but perhaps more importantly he believed in her ability to articulate that work for an entire school system. Barrera was elected at a time when big cities were appointing people who had special business or leadership skills to superintendent positions, rather than people with an education background. He thought that was the wrong approach.  

“It was just like what a difference would there be in this whole conversation about how to make school districts better, if we had someone like Cindy Marten as superintendent,” Barrera recalls thinking.  

Central Elementary Principal Cindy Marten embraces a supporter after the San Diego Unified School District board announced her as its pick for superintendent. / Photo by Sam Hodgson

Marten’s rise is inextricably linked with the idea that she helped “turn around” a struggling school. And when it comes to creating a warm and loving environment – which experts agree is critical toward creating a good school – she seems to have succeeded. But looking at academic results alone, the term turnaround might be a misnomer. 

During Marten’s time, Central had the fifth best academic results compared to 10 similar schools, a Voice of San Diego analysis found at the time. Central made its biggest single-year gains before Marten was even principal. 

“The numbers alone paint a picture of a school that’s distinctly average among similar schools,” reporter Will Carless wrote. 

Major Victories and Setbacks

Marten has made some dents in her list of 12 quality indicators as superintendent. She has, for instance, massively increased professional learning opportunities for the district’s teachers. 

But many people point to increased graduation standards as Marten’s most noteworthy success. 

In 2016, she made the course load for graduation more difficult. In order to graduate, all students had to meet what’s known as A-G requirements – classes required for entry into the University of California and California State University systems. 

The percentage of Black and Latino students meeting the requirements, while getting a C or better, skyrocketed.

Marten believed that Black and Latino students had been denied access to rigorous courses for a variety of reasons, including implicit bias. But once they received access to those courses many would excel, she believed. 

One of the 12 indicators of a quality school Marten created was “a broad and challenging curriculum.” On that, Marten could point to concrete success in high schools. And in providing that more challenging curriculum, she also moved toward the goal of another indicator, “closing the achievement gap,” at least by one measure. 

While Marten didn’t want schools to be judged by a test score alone, she did acknowledge in the first months of her administration that good test scores are a “byproduct” of good schools.

It’s very important that children be literate by third grade. One major study from 2010 found that students who can’t read proficiently by then are four times more likely to drop out of school

But under Marten’s tenure, the achievement gap between racial and economic groups for third grade reading has not meaningfully changed. 

The greatest evidence that Marten has not delivered on her promise of putting quality schools in every neighborhood lies in southeastern San Diego

Since Marten took over as schools chief, the state of California has started judging the success of schools by a wide range of data points. That includes test scores, but it also includes absentee rates, suspension rates and college-career readiness. If schools do poorly in enough of those measures, the state adds them to its list of worst-performing schools.

Out of 12 traditional public schools in San Diego Unified that made the list in 2020, seven are located in District E, which covers the southeastern corner of the city. Southeastern San Diego has the city’s highest concentration of Black residents.

“The schools in my district are among the worst-performing in the city,” LaWana Richmond, a Black woman who ran for school board, told me last year. Richmond and many others believe the district fails to acknowledge this fact and to engage the community in a way that would help solve problems. 

“Probably the biggest thing is the disconnect the community feels,” she said. 

An ad by the National Parents Union features several Black San Diegans speaking out against Marten’s nomination. The local NAACP chapter opposes Marten’s nomination.

During her 2013 state of the district, Marten specifically pledged to bring down the suspension rate for Black students. When she took the reins in 2013, the suspension rate for Black students was 10.1 percent – much higher than any other group. “That’s not OK,” Marten said in her speech. 

In 2018-19, that rate remained much higher than all other groups at 8.6 percent. (In 2019-20, it dropped to 5.5 percent, but nearly half the school year was cut off by COVID.) 

“The general statement that things have gotten better isn’t supported by data. The data shows patterns have largely stayed the same,” said J. Luke Wood, a professor at San Diego State University who has worked on several studies that show the impact of disproportionate suspension on Black students.

Mission Accomplished?

In the face of uneven results, Marten makes a case for victory. 

Her first state of the district address called out several data points she wanted to fix – from graduation rates for special needs students and English-learners to suspension rates for Black students. (The graduation rate for English-learners is almost exactly where Marten found it. And for special needs students it has climbed 8.5 percent.)

But as time has passed, her message has shifted from striving for greatness to greatness achieved. 

In 2018, she affirmed her belief that education is “the great equalizer” – meaning San Diego schools lift students out of poverty rather than perpetuate its cycles. “We tell our students their ZIP code is not their destiny,” she said. 

At some schools, like Edison Elementary, a high-poverty school that performs well above average, that’s true. But the reality is that ZIP code still matters very much when it comes to many San Diego schools. Community members have been asking district officials to do more in schools like Porter Elementary, Knox Middle and Lincoln High for years. But after decades, the schools are still languishing. 

Then in 2020 – with schools literally closed – Marten deemed the state of the district “unstoppable.”

Marten’s shift in rhetoric isn’t just the normal evolution of a leader who has been in office several years – it matches the changing political times. 

Back in 2013, schools were coming off the No Child Left Behind era, where resources were divvied out to schools based on test results. Stakeholders were demanding “accountability.” Reformers suggested charter schools and even private school vouchers might solve entrenched problems. 

Teachers felt degraded and under attack. Reformers wanted to make it easy to fire teachers whose students got bad test scores. And they wanted to give bonuses to those whose students got good test scores, both of which teachers unions fiercely opposed. 

Public education was filled with a frantic sense of urgency that didn’t always serve students well, but did force attention toward inequities in public schools. 

Now the wind has shifted. Teacher strikes from West Virginia to Arizona to Los Angeles found widespread public support. Democrats’ enthusiasm for charter schools and reform has dissipated. And President Joe Biden has highlighted the need for actual teachers, like Marten and education secretary nominee Miguel Cardona, who are not very far removed from the classroom, to lead the national conversation.

The mission of the day, people like Marten believe, is to build up the image of public schools and teachers. The way to create a better school system, they believe, is by garnering more respect for the teaching profession and looking inward for solutions. Marten leaves a legacy in San Diego that shows progress is possible – but optimism shouldn’t come at the expense of reality. 

Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated when San Diego Unified’s 12 indicators of a quality school were developed. They were developed before Cindy Marten became superintendent. 

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