Impact Engine’s Inaugural Class: ThinkCERCA

by: Eileen Murphy Buckley

In the information age, whether we’re talking about choosing a lab partner or an awesome product team, people who are well qualified to discuss and debate with us are often essential to our academic and economic success. These are the people who can stop us from doing stupid things and help us figure out how to do smarter things. That’s why we started Thinkcerca.com, a new Chicago education company designing an online platform to help more students develop these problem-solving and critical thinking skills, and we are thrilled to be part of Impact Engine’s inaugural cohort.

Consensus on the value of argumentation is at the core of the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS), which were designed to help the U.S. education system regain a competitive edge. So far, 45 states and three U.S. territories recently adopted CCSS. With high stakes CCSS tests kicking in by 2015 and new federal legislation that ties teacher evaluation directly to student growth on standards, billions of dollars are being spent to address the new challenge. And it is a challenge: currently less than half of American high school students graduate with the literacy skills required to succeed in a university, technical school, or job. Since 80% of 21st century U.S. jobs require this level of skill, mastery of these skills is a matter of economic survival for our country.

What we’re passionate about

Ultimately, learning how to engage together in critical thinking, productively and humanely, is the goal of the best democratic educational systems. With that goal in mind, thinkcerca.com was designed by a team of nationally recognized literacy experts. Our platform will provide tools and a premium lesson library to help teachers design and deliver debate-centered lessons aligned with the new standards. It’s designed to be simple enough that teachers across grade levels and subject areas can plan collaboratively and strategically while gathering actionable data to help students succeed. In other words, thinkcerca.com simplifies the process of getting everyone on the same team for every student’s sake.

For the student user, we’re providing experiences that have been classroom tested since Plato. Our method increases student engagement by playing on our primal desire to win others over with our ideas. As students use technology to create argumentative essays or animations, they will also be building killer career and college readiness portfolios.

New standards, teacher accountability laws, and forms of technology are causing a huge shift in education spending. In the quest to deliver standards-aligned instruction to students, school districts are bringing in experts to retrain teachers. Major publishers like Pearson and Harcourt Houghton Mifflin are repurposing their traditional content and investing in high tech delivery. Adaptive learning programs like Compass Learning, Dreambox, and – my favorite – eSpark are quickly becoming more commonplace.

In addition, companies like Edmodo and Educreations that promote social, multimedia-infused learning and sharing are cropping up in classrooms everywhere. With the U.S. Department of Education infusing cash—$400 million this year alone—districts are being incentivized to leverage technology to personalize learning, raise the rigor of content to the level of the Common Core, and provide tools to track student growth. We think expert teachers are uniquely qualified to create the valuable content that drives the use of all of these tools for customers.

But no single expert, educational publishing house, or technology tool represents the total solution. At Thinkcerca.com we believe it’s going to take a bunch of awesome teachers and real students to put all of those things together to solve this problem, and they’ll need to share a common language. With a common language, we can say goodbye to the educationese Tower of Babel that makes it so hard to share!

ThinkCERCA is harnessing the unique combination of deep subject area knowledge, hard-earned, pedagogical design skill, and research-based expertise to build a marketplace that will give school districts economic access to the world’s largest selection of high quality literacy lessons. Unlike a the limited selection available in a static textbook, our dynamic marketplace will offer a distribution channel for expert teachers to refresh and deepen the lesson library in ways that both students and teachers find valuable.

Our Hypothesis

Our hypothesis is that the combination of enormous selection, user-centered design, online delivery to students, and increased engagement with peers will result in better student outcomes. As peers collaborate on expert designed lessons, teachers can focus their efforts meeting the needs of students in ways no textbook or online program could possibly do.

The most successful businesses in education, we believe, ought to be the ones that reward the products and services that result in the best student outcomes, and that’s what we are striving to do. We’re a committed group of literacy experts, district leaders, teachers, and software developers. Collectively, we have spent decades learning about students, teachers, schools, districts, and user experiences with technology. Working with business and technology leaders like Chuck Templeton so we can learn more about building a profitable social impact organization is what excites us most about being part of Impact Engine.

We’re enjoying our work with the team at Impact Engine to develop a smarter business model, secure the resources we need to keep building rapidly and meeting our customer needs, and above all, to recruit the entrepreneurial and technical talent we need to build the world’s best source for personalized learning.

Interested? If you happen to be in Chicago, we’d love to meet you. We’ll be in the Impact Engine space at 1871 working toward achieving our goal of empowering all students for 21st century success.

* This article is the first profile within an eight-part series, featuring the eight startup companies from Impact Engine’s inaugural cohort. Impact Engine is a 12-week accelerator program that supports for-profit businesses making the world a better place. *

About the author Eileen Murphy Buckley @Technori
Eileen Murphy Buckley, founder of thinkcerca.com, a platform that delivers tools and curriculum to teach the critical thinking and literacy skills across disciplines. She is currently part of the inaugural class of the Impact Engine at 1871 in Chicago. She was formerly the Director of Curriculum and Instruction for over 100 CPS schools where she worked closely with principals and district leaders. She was also the founding English Department Chair of top-ranked Walter Payton College Prep and author of NCTE's 360 Degrees of Text (2011.)

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