By Elizabeth Ferruelo
Fixing the education system has long been a national priority — and a national struggle. The U.S. lags behind other developed countries in math and science, and student performance is uneven across states. But the convergence of two new trends is creating reason for cautious optimism.
The Common Core standards, called by the New York Times “the most significant change to American public education in a generation,” have created uniform curricular objectives, which seek to smooth out the unevenness in education. Second, technology — cheaper hardware and digital tools such as Khan Academy or MOOCs — has opened access to information, professors and resources in ways unimaginable a decade earlier.
While this technology was disrupting most industries, a fragmented market and paper textbooks delayed the entry of new companies, products and ideas into education. But a more fertile market created by the Common Core and digitalization, and futile attempts to convince a publisher to build the curriculum program she needed, prompted teacher-turned-social entrepreneur Eileen Murphy to launch thinkCERCA.
Experience teaching English in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and working in curriculum design in a central office meant Murphy knew not only what teachers needed, but she could see the larger, more troubling picture. Centralized data revealed student performance decreasing in many cases, pointing to a failure in individualized teaching. At a micro level, she visited 20 blended schools—those integrating online learning in the classroom — and noticed dramatic shortcomings. “The gaping hole was in literacy. We also saw that digital use was isolated – it was not collaborative and there was no teacher involvement.”
Rather than textbooks, thinkCERCA emphasizes critical reasoning and group debate through its dynamic collection of online articles. Students evaluate texts ranging from the Constitution to those by graffiti artist Banksy to learn evidence-based thinking with software that accommodates the multiple learning levels within each classroom. Currently 20,000 students use the product across 100 schools, the majority of which are public and range from campuses with one, shared computer lab to highly blended.
Where there is opportunity, investment follows. In the first quarter of 2014, ed tech startups raised over $500 million, according to TechCruch. Much of this investment has gone towards student-facing digital products like thinkCERCA, according to a Gates Foundation study released earlier this year. And trends suggest the market will continue to grow.
Although thinkCERCA was part of the inaugural class of Impact Engine, a Chicago-based social incubator, there are now more than 15 accelerators around the U.S. dedicated to education. Becoming a social business was a matter of debate at the outset; many suggested a nonprofit structure with free products, but Murphy knew the business model was the better option. “I was worried there wouldn’t be enough philanthropy for us to keep growing, and one of our main missions in developing this technology was…to solve a principals’ problem…For student outcomes to happen quick, the principal had to make a commitment to literacy and personalizing student growth.” Murphy added that the investment in a paid curriculum product carried the obligation to give it a fair try.
Still social entrepreneurship carries its unique set of challenges. “When you’re trying to solve a social problem, people feel a little bit uncomfortable with capitalism.” Murphy continued, “On the one hand you have to convince capitalists that you have a viable business; the flip side is convincing the people whose problem you’re trying to solve that you’re committed to a for-profit venture because it is the best option.”