Kanter, chancellor of the Foothill-De Anza Community College District from 2003 to 2009, was tapped last year by President Barack Obama to be undersecretary of education — the first top-level federal education official with a deep community-college background.
She now oversees some 1,500 federal employees — about 40 percent of the Department of Education staff — in areas including higher education, vocational and career education, workforce preparation, special White House initiatives for Hispanic students, tribal colleges, historically black colleges and others, plus overseeing billions of dollars of student loans.
"I tell people I have to add three zeroes to everything," she said in an interview with the Weekly in Washington, D.C.
"Instead of thinking in millions, I'm thinking in billions.
"Instead of trying to scale 'best practices' at two community colleges, I look at the evidence from the entire research community and say, 'What can the federal government do to help institutions scale what works?'"
With a doctorate in organization and leadership, Kanter is well-versed in the realm of education jargon, academic research and statistics.
But her animating passion, from the days of her own relatively privileged, private-school upbringing in Boston, is deeply human — working on behalf of students who are poor, have disabilities, are immigrants or are members of minority groups.
Kanter's driving goal is to boost the nation's low-income, often ill-prepared students to improve their success rates in getting through college and into the higher-pay workforce.
For years, Kanter has rattled off the grim statistics — not so visible in a community such as Palo Alto — with the sense of a crusader.
She cites statistics, such as that 30 percent of the nation's students come to kindergarten poorly prepared, leading to stagnation of math and reading scores by fourth grade.
Another 30 percent of the country's students — 50 percent in some urban and rural areas — drop out of high school.
Many others enter college, including community college, ill-prepared, leading to a 50 percent dropout rate in undergraduate and even in later doctoral programs.
"This is not the America we want," she said. "We have to do better for the next generation."
Her goals are clear-cut: increase access to higher education, improve its quality and get results, as measured by higher rates of achievement, retention, graduation and employment.
"What are the best incentives? How can we scale things, and how can we pay for this?" she asks.
She is proud of the recent simplification of the federal student-aid application, made possible "because we were able to work in collaboration with the Treasury and use information the government already had."
"We need to do a lot more of that!" she said.
Her department's Office of Innovation is sifting through more than 1,700 "best practices" proposals from districts across the country to find those grounded in "robust, evidence-based research" that should be spread to more schools.
An energetic conference-goer and speechmaker, Kanter has used her bully pulpit to spread the word in 40 states and foreign countries, including India, France and Morocco.
While not promoting specific programs, Kanter said she can shine a spotlight on strategies that have proven effective, including summer bridge programs, performance-based scholarships and programs that permit high-school students to take some of their classes in community colleges.
That approach, known as "early college high school" — similar to the Middle College now offered to Palo Alto students — recently received a significant investment from philanthropist Bill Gates.
In a typical day, Kanter meets a colleague at a Starbuck's at 7 a.m. to carpool into the office. She holds a staff meeting; meets with a deputy secretary; hears a research briefing from a Columbia University professor; discusses ways to improve international benchmarking of education data; meets with her boss, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan; attends a meeting in the West Wing; returns to her office for a meeting about student-loan reforms, including "direct lending" to cut out the middleman; discusses civil rights and technologies to help students with disabilities; dines with her chief of staff; goes home; edits two speeches; spends more than an hour responding to e-mail and goes to bed at midnight.
By 2020, President Obama has called for the United States to have "the best-educated, most competitive workforce in the world," including the world's highest rate of college graduation.
To reach that goal, the U.S. must increase from 40 percent to 60 percent the proportion of students who earn associate and baccalaureate degrees, Kanter said.
The administration believes some ways of achieving that are reforming the $40 billion Pell Grant program, paying more attention to historically black colleges, Hispanic-serving institutions and tribal colleges, and launching policies to ease loan-repayment terms for those who enter teaching, nursing and other areas of public service.
In suggesting reforms to Pell grants, the administration has taken on the for-profit education industry, whose students use the grants in disproportionate numbers.
Proposed rules would make it harder to load students with debt levels not justified by their prospective careers.
Today's "reality," Kanter said, is that two-thirds of the nation's undergraduates hold jobs while they are in school and need programs tailored to their schedules.
Since many enter college unprepared, remedial programs must be streamlined to allow students to catch up quickly and get on with real college work, she said.
Foothill's self-paced "Math My Way" program is one such example.
It caught the attention of Gates, who dropped in on a session at Foothill in April during his search for "best practices" he can spread across the country.
"Foothill-De Anza prepared me well for this job," Kanter said. "When you have labor, business, government and education in a region, a publicly elected board and 45,000 students, it's a great microcosm."
Kanter was back recently — with Duncan, who spoke at the June 23 and June 24 graduation ceremonies of Foothill and De Anza.
The Harvard-educated Duncan told graduates that community colleges are "central to building a vibrant economy and resilient workforce, and are critical to meeting President Obama's goal of America once again having the highest percentage of college graduates in the world by 2020."
With the higher-education portfolio, Kanter is not directly involved in Duncan's signature $4.35 billion "Race to the Top" incentive program for K-12 education. But she calls it critical in helping to prepare students for college.
Pieces of Race to the Top — some of which are vigorously opposed by teachers' unions — include greater use of student-achievement data, turning around low-performing schools, improving teacher quality and lifting caps on charter schools.
"For me it all boils down to helping more students stay on grade level, cutting down on our high-school dropout rate and having them better prepared for college," Kanter said.
Besides her large desk, Kanter's expansive office in the huge LBJ Department of Education Building contains a long conference table, a sofa, a framed copy of her White House appointment, a wall of books, and mementos from home — including a photo of her late husband, Carl Brown, and another of her "classmates" from the American Leadership Forum of Silicon Valley, a local networking group.
Kanter also brought with her a few people from home, including Special Assistant Jon O'Bergh, who served in a similar capacity at Foothill-De Anza, and former Foothill-De Anza district trustee Hal Plotkin, who works from a cubicle next to Kanter's office as a senior policy adviser.
Kanter's chief of staff is Alejandra Ceja, a Los Angeles native and former staff member for the House Education and Labor Committee.
"I met Martha, and in the first five minutes her energy and passion for education was just contagious," Ceja said.
"We talked about the need to increase opportunities for minority students, in particular the Latino community, and I was sold.
"How can you say no to this woman?
"We have a young staff here, but we have a hard time keeping up with her."
Though clearly relishing the new job, Kanter said she's surprised to find herself working in the Obama administration.
"I never imagined I'd be doing this kind of work," she said. "I'd done policy work in Sacramento for five years, but I never thought I'd be in Washington.
"I miss 'California casual.' The layers of lawyers, policy wonks and decades of special interests make it ever more important to keep the focus on what's best for students. ...
"But when you get called to service, you serve."