ThinkCERCA is an award-winning literacy platform that encourages students in grades 4 – 12 to build evidence-based arguments. Co-founded by Eileen Murphy and Abby Ross, the duo were apart of Impact Engine’s first cohort of companies in 2012. Today, they have grown ThinkCERCA into a successful edtech businesses recognized by Bill Gates as an innovative literacy tool that’s showing positive results for students! We connected with Eileen and Abby to hear more about the progress they have made over the last four years, how the edtech space has evolved (as continues to do so), and what advice they have for entrepreneurs who are just starting on their impact entrepreneurship journey.
ThinkCERCA was started to help all students achieve career and college readiness. Is this still your goal? What progress have you made?
Every student, regardless of socio-economic background or readiness level, should have access to quality, engaging curriculum that develops their critical thinking skills while meeting the demands of new career and college readiness standards. This is still our main focus and what drives our team every day. Helping students prepare for life outside of the classroom is not an easy task—they need to be able to evaluate and synthesize information and communicate their ideas effectively. They need strong reading, writing, and critical thinking skills.
When we started Impact Engine as part of the first cohort in 2012, major shifts were happening in education. States all over the country were adopting new standards that focused on rigor and student growth. In addition, districts started investing more heavily in hardware and infrastructure to make technology an integral part of classroom instruction. These external factors are even more prevalent than they were three years ago, which has helped us accelerate the business quickly. Instructional leaders are craving a district- and school-wide technology solution that goes beyond rote practice to truly prepare students for college or career, and ThinkCERCA’s personalized literacy platform provides them with that solution.
The biggest testament to our progress is our efficacy results. Since January, we’ve received results from three studies that confirm our positive impact on students. In fact, Chicago’s own LEAP Innovations released controlled study results in February showing that ThinkCERCA helped students achieve roughly a year’s worth of academic growth.
We continue to make progress in four key areas to help us build upon this momentum and strengthen our mission:
- Product and Content Growth – When we launched our product in 2013, it included only English language arts content. Now we’re the only platform with literacy lessons for all four core subjects: ELA, science, social studies, and even math. Our comprehensive curriculum—paired with our patent-pending technology for building arguments—is a big part of what sets us apart from our competitors. This year, we’re making a significant investment in supports for English language learners as well as data and insights to help educators track student progress on standards and skills over time.
- Free Teacher Platform – We’re continuing to build a community of classroom teachers through our free product, which features independent reading lessons and automatic assessments that get students accustomed to the kinds of questioning found in assessments all across the country. So far, this platform has been adopted by educators in all 50 states and 132 countries. More than 30% of schools in the United States have at least one classroom using this product.
- Dedicated Success Team – We wouldn’t be where we are today without our Success Team. This group of former educators makes sure every school we work with has the support and resources they need to be successful with ThinkCERCA. They work side-by-side with educators to ensure fidelity of implementation to drive continuous student growth. Over the next year, we’ll be developing additional tools and resources to scale this support as we expand the product to larger districts.
- School and District Sales Team – We’ve had tremendous success expanding our reach beyond Chicago due to a dedicated inside sales team that takes the time to truly understand administrators’ literacy goals and needs. They have secured partnerships with 180 unique districts, including major adoption in urban districts such as NYC DOE, Chicago Public Schools, LAUSD, School District of Philadelphia, and Milwaukee Public Schools. Moving forward, we now have dedicated outside sales team members in strategic markets to build upon this traction.
Investments in ed tech companies reached an all time high in 2015, how to do see the space evolving and how does ThinkCERCA continue to set itself apart from other education platforms?
Education can benefit from innovation in a lot of ways, so the capital investments in edtech are a promising sign for school improvement at scale. The education platforms that will rise to the top and have staying power are the technologies that improve student outcomes and educational systems. As I mentioned, we have validated proof that ThinkCERCA can have a positive impact on student growth. We tell administrators that if they can own usage, we will own their results. This messaging indicates that we are truly partners for educators in their efforts to personalize student growth. Not only do we provide true engagement for students, but we improve instruction and instructional leadership.
You’ve had a lot of success implementing the ThinkCERCA platform in more than 300 schools across over the last three years. What are some of the challenges you face building an edtech business and how have you overcome them?
Investors early on were afraid of businesses that sold to schools and of the overall challenges of education as an industry, which was notorious for long buying cycles and difficult procurement processes. There were a lot of single-point solutions that were helping teachers, so the space seemed crowded. While these challenges were real, education is also one of the best opportunities for growth in technology today and thinking as an administrator (who is often the decision-maker) and as a teacher, (who is our user along with students), we were able to make a product that solved real problems throughout the whole school rather than a single classroom. A great product, proven efficacy results, and a team that can execute on sales, has helped us overcome these challenges.
You have come a long way since your starting days with Impact Engine. What advice do you have for the newest impact entrepreneurs out there?
Building spreadsheets and powerpoints of what you’re going to do and actually executing it are two different things. This is advice entrepreneurs hear all the time, but it’s so true. Testing your hypothesis “in the wild” with real customers and prospects is the most important thing you can do to move your business along. When we started ThinkCERCA, we tested the idea in schools with a paper-based model before we considered building the technology. Always build, measure, and learn to figure out what’s working, what’s not, and why. Then quickly react and optimize. Most importantly, have the courage to stick to your guns when you know the right thing is right even when everyone else thinks it is wrong. It doesn’t mean being stubborn. It just means that the insight that moved you to do this work in the first place is one of your advantages, so be sure to trust it when you are desperate to figure things out quickly and are surrounded by really smart people who are also there trying to help.