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A TechCHAT With ThinkCERCA CEO Eileen Murphy Buckley

The TechCHAT series invites educators and education-focused individuals from across the country and around the world to share how they’re using technology to enhance instruction and student learning.

ThinkCERCA, a Chicago-based EdTech startup, provides both free and paid services that offer literacy tools through their platform. Their interactive assignment tools include various primary texts to use across all subjects and grade levels. Recently, Education World interviewed ThinkCERCA CEO and founder Eileen Murphy Buckley about how the platform's methods can benefit literacy in the classroom and beyond. 


Give our readers a brief description of ThinkCERCA in your own words that adequately highlights its usefulness.

We have over 3 million teachers who need to prepare over 55 million students for the Common Core. In order to be successful, teachers, principals and administrators need a common language and framework so everyone is on the same page and in pursuit of the same goals for student achievement. In addition, we need to get kids thinking critically, not only for these tests but for their careers. The fastest way to do this is through literacy education and putting complex texts in front of students. This has to happen in every class. We need to create an environment where they are writing, receiving feedback and engaging in meaningful peer-to-peer debates. ThinkCERCA facilitates all of these things and helps teachers provide differentiated instruction in close reading, argumentative writing and discussion, regardless of their technology set up.


Could you provide some data on how successful individualized practice, review and self-pacing have been for students using ThinkCERCA?

We have seen tremendous growth on NWEA MAP (taken by 10 million students), with classes that went from the 40th to the 87th percentile nationally. We’ve seen other classrooms where 75% of students met 1 year growth targets, and 85% met 1.5 year growth targets. They are classrooms where the achievement gap is closing due to personalized literacy learning.

In a controlled study using PARCC writing rubrics, students demonstrated growth in all 6 aspects of the rubric and statistically significant growth in half of them.

We expect that the longitudinal studies that are underway will show that our impact over time is even greater, since in literacy, the rich get richer. Students who are more high school ready, for example, become more college ready.


In terms of meeting learning objectives, where are the best results being seen with ThinkCERCA in play?  

ThinkCERCA is taking a holistic approach, so rather than evaluating subject-by-subject, we are evaluating student literacy growth overall. Kids are using ThinkCERCA in social studies, language arts and science with the overall goal of improving their critical thinking and analytical skills. Math teachers are even using the lesson creation tools to improve mathematical argumentation skills.

Writing is improved within 8 weeks, but in the best implementations of ThinkCERCA, we’re seeing gains up to 2.2 years in reading growth as well.


How are actual improvements in literacy and critical thinking skills gauged by ThinkCERCA? Do you have any studies that we could share that highlight real success?

In addition to principals who track progress using writing samples and growth on standardized tests, we have had the benefit of one controlled study by one of the leading research organizations in the country. The results are not yet public, but were very positive, showing a statistically significant impact within 8 weeks.


In an over-saturated EdTech market space, how is ThinkCERCA distinguished from its competitors?

ThinkCERCA differentiates itself from other EdTech platforms in two main areas: our team-based approach to writing instruction and our use of authentic texts. As a seasoned classroom teacher and administrator for the Chicago Public Schools, I bring firsthand experience and an understanding of the complexity of the problems teachers and students face. I  feel strongly that we need to empower teachers to work as a team through our technology, but that each teacher needs to do what they are already doing in a more scalable way. We don’t like the idea of “teacher proof technology” that, for years, has automated every task of a teacher. “Teaching is a thinking human’s job” as Charlotte Danielson so eloquently put it. We just want to help the teachers, whose time is the most valuable resource schools have, more effectively help students tackle these complex skills.

Our related but different authentic texts also really distinguishes ThinkCERCA from others who approach leveling through rewrites. We believe in exposing kids to difficult texts and challenging them to stretch their reading abilities, while also working as a learning community to go deeper into topics through multiple perspectives. The availability of individualized teacher help and the engagement of peers at all levels of readiness changes the game in classroom dynamics and helps schools work as a team to focus on ambitious instruction.


Could you give us a direct quote from an administrator using ThinkCERCA? 

"Years of intense focus on reading and mathematics left a void in our students' ability to write coherent thoughts. ThinkCERCA has provided our students with a scaffolded framework to develop their thoughts and to produce writing that meets and exceeds the Common Core standards. In just 4 months of implementation, we have seen a dramatic increase in our students' ability to make a claim, provide text-based evidence, establish sound reasoning for their claim based on the evidence, and address the counter argument while focusing on the audience.  Students are now developing their writing using the CERCA model on assignments outside of the program.  Writing scores on county assessments have increased due to our implementation of this program."

-Troy Barnes, principal at C. Paul Barnhart Elementary School in Waldorf, Maryland. 



Article by Jason Papallo, Education World Social Media Editor

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