Q&A with Abby Ross, COO and Co-founder of ThinkCERCA
Continuing the conversation with Chicago-based edtech startups, EdTech Times spoke with Abby Ross, COO of ThinkCERCA. ThinkCERCA develops tools and lessons for teachers, enabling them to develop and personalize reading and writing instruction.
Company at Glance:
Founders: Eileen Murphy, Abby Ross, Ten Chu
Category: Education Technology, Literacy, K-12
Product stage: Market
Company twitter: @thinkcerca
Founder twitter: @eileencerca
ETT: How would you define the market segment your company is in? Who are your core customers?
AR: ThinkCERCA is an education technology company that provides schools with tools and lessons teachers need to personalize reading and writing instruction across subjects for grades 4-12.
ETT: How did you identify the problem you’re addressing? What was your process in identifying it?
AR: As a district leader, Eileen Murphy, the founder of ThinkCERCA, saw the lack of differentiation resources and instructional delivery support for teachers as well as the chaos of free apps and discrete sources of content or empty platforms that gave teachers tools but no content. Using the successful paper-based system as a model, Murphy developed a technology that delivered the research-based approach to improving student growth.
New standards and assessments combined with federal legislation, which require principals to hold teachers personally accountable for student growth meant that teachers throughout the U. S. are facing the challenge of helping a wide range of learners develop the complex academic reading and writing skills required for achievement. Principals are buying ThinkCERCA to help teams prepare students in every subject from grades 4-12 for new tests that measure both career and college readiness.
We are lucky to work with schools and teachers across the country to help identify ways to improve the way we help teachers personalize student growth. By providing teachers with leveled lessons that focus on building critical thinking, reading and writing skills, ThinkCERCA saves teachers time and allow them to work with students one on one or in small groups to truly personalize instruction.
ETT: And how did you develop a solution to this particular problem? What was your process?
AR: Our CEO, Eileen Murphy, is a nationally recognized expert on the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and is the author of “360 Degrees of Text” (NCTE, 2011), a book on close reading and powerful writing, the skills featured in the CCSS. She was the founding English Department Chair at Walter Payton College Prep, one of the country’s highest performing high schools, and a district leader in Chicago Public Schools. As the Director of Curriculum and Instruction for over 100 of Chicago’s highest performing schools, she became passionate about the role technology could play in education in the 21st century. Eileen has been collaborating with teachers, administrators, and scholars across the country to bring a new level of rigor and engagement to blended learning in the era of CCSS and it is her work in-schools that lead her to develop the ThinkCERCA Framework.
After seeing schools struggling with the complexity of the standards and the sheer lack of resources to address them, she decided that whoever was going to develop these resources had to know what they were doing. That meant teachers who really understood the content AND how to teach it.
Our solution addresses all the Literacy Standards through direct instruction, applied practices, and formal assessments. Over the course of years of collaboration and work in schools and universities, we used the findings of the University of Chicago’s research that isolates particular classroom practices that had dramatic impact on student achievement. And after our first year of successfully implementing the full platform in schools, we have developed several case studies about the impact of our solution.
ThinkCERCA is designed to provide all students access to engaging and rigorous curriculum, instruction, assessment as well as heightened peer engagement in the world of ideas, regardless of a students’ location or means. Through expert lesson design around authentic, high-quality texts and engaging peer collaboration (online and offline), students everywhere can achieve more through ThinkCERCA’s evidence-based argumentation framework. At the core, we help educators and parents support students in building capacity for making a Claim, supporting it with Evidence, explaining Reasoning clearly, addressing Counterarguments, and using the language appropriate for the Audience in any given academic, professional, or personal occasion; hence the name CERCA.
ETT: What makes your solution different from the competitors’ – what is it that you’re doing differently than your competitors?
AR: We focus on one core thing, argumentation. We teach kids how to do everything else, while we engage them in the process of making a claim, supporting it with evidence, explaining their reasoning, addressing counterarguments, and using audience-appropriate language. Since our framework works across grade levels and subjects, it addresses the organizational problem of helping teachers get on the same page in terms of student growth and team ownership for that growth, without sacrificing the duty they have to their content.
Our innovative approach helps principals solve the tower of babel problem by helping them bring a “no assembly required” solution to the entire team, rather than a single-point solution for one teacher. That is why ThinkCERCA has emerged as a key player in the personalized learning space. Through a targeted inside sales strategy that leverages direct sales and a new, free teacher platform offering, ThinkCERCA has a rapidly growing base of subscribing and district level penetration in 10 key markets across the U.S.
ETT: How did you come across 1871? Were you always based in Chicago?
AR: ThinkCERCA was a member of the first Impact Engine 2012 class, a Chicago-based social impact accelerator. We came to 1871 as part of that program.
1871 has been an incredible partner in helping us promote the much needed innovation that is happening right here in Chicago. Howard Tulman, 1871 CEO, gave the keynote at the opening day of the Education Technology Conference on August 13th to over 90 administrator and school leaders (check out the photos at FB album). The 2-day event brought together 40 start-up companies and over 650 educators to learn more about education technology.
ETT: Please tell us more about your product stage and what we should expect to see from your company in the next 12 months – i.e. describe your potential next milestones.
AR: We are currently in ‘ramp up’ phase. We are an established company with a strong Chicago presence. Our team consists of 15 people and we are still experiencing an incredible growth spurt, due to increasing traction and sales growth.
Our free version is in over 5,250 schools across all 50 states and 27 countries. Our subscription-based version has over 25,000 subscribed students across 13 states, quadrupling our growth since launch and incredible renewal rates due to happy customers with stories of growth results.
We expect to reach over 50,000 by the end of the next school year!
ETT: Are you a disruptor, and why so? Do you believe you will remain as a disruptor in near foreseeable future or become a more mature company? Why is that so?
AR: The entire education industry is being disrupted and we are committed to being on the forefront of innovation. A lot of education technology companies are a single-point app/solution or are meant to be used in a computer lab or very specific way.
We built ThinkCERCA as a school-wide literacy solution and work in scenarios where schools are 1:1 or just a computer lab. ThinkCERCA truly helps schools with “blended learning” because our curriculum, instruction and technology helps teachers develop personalized learning plans for students and build relationships with students around their literacy skill development.
ETT: Could you tell us about other startups or product builds that you have been a part of and what your role was?
AR: Our executive team has a unique blend of entrepreneurship, education, and technology. Eileen was the founding English Department Chair at Walter Payton College Prep.
This is my 3rd start-up, after 2 successful ventures, as the Director of Product and Business Development at Where I’ve Been (acquired by Trip Advisor, 2010) and was a Managing Partner at Blueye, which is a Facebook Preferred Developer.
Josh Tolman, our CTO, was the former Deputy CEO of CameronTec Group, following CameronTec’s recent acquisition of Greenline Financial Technologies, the world-class electronic trading solutions provider. Joining Greenline in 2005 as CEO, Josh was responsible for the expansion of its suite of solutions and services beyond the US market into Latin America, Asia Pacific and EMEA.
ETT: Did you or do you currently have a mentor who is/has been helping you through the startup stages of the company? Who is that mentor?
AR: We are SO lucky to have Chuck Templeton as an incredible mentor during Impact Engine and now as a Board member. His perspective as an entrepreneur has given us spot-on advice and insight throughout every step of the way, from fundraising to sales strategy. His passion for social impact and the possibilities of education technology to help provide equitable access to college and career readiness is unparalleled.
Our other board member, Deborah Quazzo, has also been an incredible advocate for our approach and keeps us grounded in the realities of this world of education technology start-up life.
ETT: Where do you see the education technology market going in the next few years, especially in the CCSS-alignment segment?
AR: It seems like we’ve all been talking about a big change in edtech for a while, but now it is really happening. Over the next few years with the CCSS, more access to technology and the infrastructure, you will start to see schools truly understand that “blended learning” is a mix of teachers, students and technology. It has never been easier to educate people but the spaces and time in schools need to shift and ultimately, we are going to have to pick some things to focus on and get away from the free for all consumer app mentality. We will really need to increase the pace of organizational adoption of solutions to see rapid change.
ETT: What advice, if any, do you have for someone thinking about launching a company in the education technology market?
AR: Education technology companies that value the importance of the student-teacher interactions and collaborative learning environments will be the ones that have learning outcomes for college and career readiness. Outcomes will make successful businesses.
EdTech Times thanks Abby Ross for the expansive interview given, and we recommend you learn more about ThinkCERCA at:
Yevgeny Ioffe, or as people call him, Yev, has been working in both the startup world and established companies. His career spans from joining Xplana Learning as it launched to Cengage Learning to MBS Direct when it acquired Xplana in 2009. Yevgeny brings to EdTech Times his passion for start-ups and technology, along with his interest in the ever evolving world of edtech. Yevgeny obtained his BSc and MA from Brandeis University and MBA from Boston College.