EdTech is certainly a growth industry. However, the Gates Foundation doesn’t award every EdTech StartUp a Literacy Courseware Challenge Grant. And, Bill Gates doesn’t call technology “game-changing” often.
That fast-growing company is ThinkCERCA™. The EdTech company’s Co-Founder and Chief Partnership Officer, Abby Ross joined episode 20 of the Brand Lab Series™ podcast to share how technologists and educators are changing the way students learn.
Abby learned the value of education early and often as the daughter of two teachers. Now she is able to marry her passion and expertise to help students build critical thinking skills.Teachers can help student reading, writing, collaboration and communication skills because of ThinkCERCA™’s technology. Due to their content platform, lesson plan libraries can be customized down to student level.
Abby, Natalie, and Brian discuss the rapid changes in education, innovation, and co-creation. Brian also asks Abby about growth, student data and the recognition ThinkCERCA™ has received over the last few years.
Throughout the interview, Abby provides a good perspective on the growing space. We hope you enjoy the episode.READ FULL TRANSCRIPT
Learn from today’s most innovative brands, and observe how they empower employees, engage consumers, design products, and co-create experiences together. Welcome to the Brand Lab Series™ from AE Marketing Group.
Hi, everyone. This is Brian Walker, along with my co-host, Natalie Pyles. We’re excited to have you with us. This is Episode 20 of the Brand Lab Series™ podcast, where each week we broadcast from 1871 Chicago, and we feature today’s most innovative brands alongside today’s most insightful executives and entrepreneurs. This week, we’re talking to one of my favorite millennials, conscious capitalists, and strategists, Abby Ross. Abby is the Co-Founder and Chief Partnerships officer at ThinkCERCA. We’re gonna talk about education and technology today. And with that said, let’s enter the Brand Lab™.
Good morning, Natalie. How are you?
Good morning, Brian. I am great. How are you?
I’m good. I’m super excited to have Abby on with us today. I know back in Episode 15, when we talked about Generation Z, a little bit of education came up, and as parents, both of us, of young kids, I know that’s a pretty important topic. And I have known Abby for five years, I think. Maybe a little bit more. She’s super smart, a great strategist. Like me, I think she loves a blank whiteboard, it’s her canvas. And I’m super excited to learn a little bit more about EdTech, what she’s doing at ThinkCERCA, and what the state is, and what the outlook might be for education so I’m excited to have her on.
Yeah, this’ll be great. Did you know I was a teacher, Brian?
How did I not know that? You’ve been my co-host for a long time.
Yeah, so I’m dying to hear what she has to say as well.
Alright, let’s go ahead and get started. Abby, welcome to the show. Good morning.
Hi, thanks so much for having me. I’m really excited.
Well, thank you for joining us. As I said, you are a favorite of mine, a great strategist, good thinker. As the Co-Founder of ThinkCERCA, which I know is an education technology company, some of our listeners may not be as familiar with it though, so I’d love for you to at least start there by telling us a little bit about ThinkCERCA.
Sure, so we started about three and a half years ago. We’re an education technology company that specifically focuses in on helping students build critical thinking skills – so reading, writing, collaboration, communication skills, and really what defines college and career readiness for students of today. And we do that with a technology that has a lesson library for teachers where they can go in and search content for math, science, social studies, English. They can create their own content. All of this content is aligned to standards so teachers can make sure that they’re covering all the skills on a continuum that they need for students, and also pair it with existing curriculum, so search by theme or topic. And the real powerful thing about it is that they can personalize learning for all of their students. So if you’re a seventh grade teacher and have maybe three different levels of readers in your classroom and maybe different interests and topics for those students, you can assign different lessons to different students to make sure that they’re getting something at their own level of readiness.
So over the past three and a half years, we’ve basically built the business to work with schools and districts across the country. We have a free version that is used in about classrooms across 30% of schools in about 132 countries, and we have an enterprise version that is used in basically all of the major urban systems: Chicago Public Schools, New York, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, LA Unified. And having some exciting growth as we start to now work with additional school districts to bring their students on to make sure they have access to the technology. And one of the most important and exciting things about the growth that we’ve had at ThinkCERCA since building it is we’ve recently received about three independent efficacy studies that showcase the growth and the student gains that happen after using ThinkCERCA for a year, can be up to an extra year of growth for students which is pretty significant in some of our urban school districts.
Yeah, that’s amazing growth. I have two kids. I have a five-year-old and an eight-year-old, so I know how important education is to their development and their confidence and everything, so that’s really exciting. Why would you say you’re so passionate about education?
Both of my parents are teachers, so I probably from “go” realized the importance that education can play. Also really believe that that’s the biggest lever that society has for true change, and really where the passion has both started and then continued to accelerate is when… First was introduced to my co-founder Eileen who was an educator, a Chicago Public School teacher for 15 years, and then became the Director of Curriculum and Instruction in Chicago Public Schools. And when I met her, she basically came to me and said, “I have some lesson plans. I have graphic organizers. I have rubrics for giving students feedback on their writing and wanna build this into a technology.”
So over the course of about eight weeks we’ve rapid prototyped, a lot of whiteboards, Brian. You’d appreciate it. [chuckle] And launched a prototype that we did on the South Westside of Chicago in a classroom with about 60 middle schoolers. And in that moment after the first 20 minutes of getting over hurdles about being within the classroom and not everybody having computers and logins, but once we got everything up and running, the next hour I watch students engage with this technology program that they were all just glued to their screen typing, looking up at the ceiling. One kid said that his brain hurt, which I took as a compliment. And by the end, they all stood up and clearly articulated an argument for how they believed that they could help conserve water in their community and realized that really, technology and education, technology is the way that we can scale great instruction, great education and just seems so much more impactful that students could be learning at different levels on the same classroom and gain really important life skills. And so it’s really just compounded from there.
So Abby, JB Pritzker was recently here at 1871 and he’s very passionate about education as well, and he talked about how though as an industry it’s been slower to innovate, especially when it comes to how children learn, he felt that technology clearly could be a solution in that issue. And I’m curious how are you seeing that today?
Yeah. It’s been a really interesting journey. When we started three and a half years ago and really when Eileen left CPS about four years ago, there were a lot of macro changes happening: So common core, federal legislation, a shift in standards, and really just the overall awareness that technology is a skill of the 21st century. The fact that common core assessments are online now makes it basically mean that schools have to invest in the infrastructure. Whereas before, it was maybe more of a nice to have. And now really, they have to have it. And that’s really accelerated in the past four years or so. And that also is an interesting challenge that we deal with because everyone’s been talking about technology in education for the past 20 or 30 years. I remember, even as a student myself, going to the computer lab and doing math time, or reading time, or typing class. There was this isolation of what technology meant in schools, and it was separated. It was for reading comprehension, it was kids going to almost like a cubicle setting and just engaged one-on-one with the computer, and then you’d go back to the classroom where you open up your textbook, get the lecture from the teacher, etcetera.
So really, the instruction and technology weren’t married together. And that’s been one of the biggest shifts over the past four years that has started to happen where you’re seeing classroom walls being broken down. And you’ll have maybe 60 kids in a classroom with two teachers, one doing small group instruction and the other one rotating to help students just at the point where they need it. If you ever have time in Chicago, there’s a lot of really great schools that have done this within CPS using the resources they have just changing around the desks and the chairs to make centers in a rotational model. There’s also a couple charter schools, Intrinsic School is a really interesting model where they basically took an old warehouse and designed it for a personalized learning school where you’ll see those 60 kids in a classroom with two teachers giving individualized learning or small group instruction to students. And the most impactful thing is that technology is integrated into instruction, instead of it being separated.
And that’s really where innovation is starting to go within education is that, it’s not this separated or siloed part of your day. It’s okay, we’re gonna use Google classroom to collaborate and do peer editing, something that’s been around for hundreds of years giving your peers feedback on your writing. Now, with Google docs you can collaborate on that. Highlight in real time, comment to each other, programs like ThinkCERCA, it’s not just, “Okay, I’m staring at my computer and doing my lesson,” but asking students to debate and discuss while looking at their lesson and comparing it to a peer. So it’s starting to happen in pockets and with models of success and really, the key KPI being student growth and proving that this personalized learning in how technology can be most impactful is really I think where you’ll see education start to catch up to other industries in terms of integrating technology into daily practice and routines.
Abby, you mentioned earlier on in the conversation that Eileen came from a teacher and education background. You are obviously a technologist. Do you think that the education sector in general could use a bit of co-creation among students, educators, technologists to drive new solutions?
Yeah, that’s a really great point. And I would say that there is a pretty exciting trend in education where there’s a lot of teacherpreneurs or adminpreneurs who came from the classroom, saw an inefficiency, and decided to create a solution around it. I feel like a lot of the education technology companies that have come up in the past five years have some sort of former educator at the helm, which I think gets you to a specific point where you know and understand the problem and really can empathize with the user. And so that’s what made Eileen and I a really strong team from go is that we were able to draw from her experience and then also from mine, from more of a technology standpoint of how to do it. That being said, we wouldn’t be where we are today without basically from our first 30 schools that were brave enough while we were building ThinkCERCA between January and August of 2013, ask if they could open their doors to us to test and learn.
Interview students, interview teachers say, “Why do you like this over this?” Ask students for what types of lessons they wanna read about and learn about. One example feature is that in the very beginning we were building a way for students to chat with each other and basically discuss their argument, or discuss their paper with each other. And we prototyped it, a classroom opened up their doors and let us in, and we watched the students chatting to each other, and we were walking around and observing, and one kid raised his hand, he’s like, “The guy I’m chatting with is just sitting right next to me, can’t I just tell him what I think?” And we were like, “That’s a great point.” You need to practice speaking and listening skills, there’s no reason to be chatting to each other when really it’s just as simple as turning to your neighbor and saying, “Hey, what about this?”
And so that partnership with treating education technology companies and schools is way to request features, build a better product has been ingrained in our DNA from go, and something that I really hope that other products do because as classrooms change, as practices change, and as you start serving a more diverse community, if we go down to Texas or Florida they have a different set of standards, how do we accommodate those and how can we build, measure, learn with them? So really, the partnership of making sure you’re building for the customer is really important.
And what about co-creation amongst private and public groups to lift technology access?
I know that there’s a lot of philanthropic good intentions around education and really determining what works for how to help schools adopt technology, there’s a major need, so even though they’re coming out of their budget or if you’re in a place like Illinois and budgets are uncertain, making sure that you have technology access and equitable access for students, how can we partner with private philanthropic organizations to make sure that students have devices in their hands? And it’s not just devices either, it’s the infrastructure, the streaming bandwidth and all of that. So, whatever ways that we can bring together partnerships to make sure that students have access to device and digital is definitely an important way that I think we can make sure that education does continue to innovate.
Do internet companies ever just comp the internet to a school site?
Really great question. So I don’t know about individual sites but Comcast has a program where it’s $9 for internet for families whose students are on free and reduced lunch. So making internet and thinking about the digital divide, making internet accessible to students who might not normally have it or they only have it on mom and dad’s smartphone, maybe. But having internet in the home so that schools can do things like flipped classroom and assigning online homework, that program is a really good example of how making bandwidth and internet available for students who might not normally have it.
Yeah, that would level the playing field for sure. That’s cool. Well, in Episode 11, our listeners will remember that we talked about FinTech with Hilco Global CMO, Jim Glickman, that was a great interview. But Abby, talk to us about the EdTech space of it.
Yeah! It’s definitely evolving in a way, and accelerating because of all of these new standards growth assessments, online assessments, accountability, and really more of a focus on critical thinking skills and the role of technology in the classroom.
Well, as you know Abby, just this week was end of year for Chicago Public Schools and unfortunately I was traveling but I got a phone call from my daughter who just finished second grade, and she was awarded “Critical Thinker” and I almost shed a tear. I think she was a little confused because everyone’s getting like, “The Friendship Award,” “The Good Listener Award,” and all of this, and she gets the second grade “Critical Thinker Award” and I said, “I couldn’t be more proud of you,” because I think critical thinking skills are so important, and I was like, “Wow! How serendipitous is it that Abby’s gonna be on the show this week, and thinking about critical thinking.” So it was just a really proud dad moment and I thought so much about you with that. What other things I think excite me about seeing your growth is not just hearing some bits and pieces from you when we occasionally connect, but seeing some of the stuff that I see about you online. Some of the awards that you’ve won, I know for example you’ve been recognized for some of your innovation, you were awarded a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grant for their literacy courseware challenge, talk about that and what is it like to start to see some of the success? But maybe more important, recognition that helps validate all the hard work you’ve been doing.
Yeah. Well, so first off, congratulations, you must be a proud papa. That is probably like the one award that does seem like it has the most clout, even though [chuckle] it’s a second grade classroom, to be recognized for critical thinking skills. That is something that hopefully she takes with her throughout school. So the recognition from Bill Gates and other organizations throughout our tenure, one, I have to give props to Eileen, who really from a pedagogy standpoint and from an approach standpoint, has really guided how and why we should do what we do. And within our internal innovation sessions or whiteboard or product design, we have something that’s called the ‘efficacy trump card,’ which means, basically, we can’t make a business decision that isn’t gonna result in efficacy or outcomes for students. And it’s been that guiding principle that has led us to design the product in the way that we have and really operationalize the business in a way that does what’s best for schools.
And so, when we first started and some of the other education technology companies that are out there, we wanted to be really intentional in building something that was comprehensive and connected for students, focused on hard skills like critical thinking, teaching. Writing is such a difficult skill, and we if compare it to a spiral staircase, where you never totally master main idea, or really master evidence from the text. It’s one of those things that you always come back to and you build, like a muscle. And so, as we’ve built this framework and product, in the beginning, it was really hard to explain what we do. Not everybody understood it and it was like, “Well, I have this other program that does this one thing for me and it does it really, really well.” And it could be multiple choice questions. And for us, it was like, “Well, we do this, and this, and this, and this,” which in entrepreneurship or in product design, can sometimes be the kiss of death.
But we kept going through the process and kept trotting along, found schools that did implement to fidelity, and the recognition from other brands and organizations now come from the fact that schools adopt us as a core part of their literacy plan, and get really great student results. So that was really the driving force for why Bill Gates stood up on a stage at a keynote conference of one of the largest education innovation conferences and said, “I really like ThinkCERCA because of their student outcomes.” So to be recognized for our approach, our outcomes, and really the intentionality that we’re trying to bring to literacy education makes all of those early moments of being difficult to explain or not being a single thing that we’re really good at makes it all worth it and makes it a lot easier now because that efficacy trump card also allows us to walk into schools and districts and say, “If you do this, it will work.”
Well, I love that trump card comment, and I know you’ve mentioned efficacy studies a little earlier. Talk about the impact, and I know you’re still relatively young company, but I know in start-ups in general it’s always about, what is the data showing us, what is the impact showing us? And it sounds like you’re starting to see some of all of your hard work and your whole team’s hard work starting to pay off. So talk a little bit about some of the results you’re starting to see already in terms of schools that have adopted your approach.
Sure. So, we’ve gone through the process of three different studies, really for three different purposes because we wanted to understand the implications of how ThinkCERCA was used across a variety of different environments. So, one study that we did with SRI International as part of the literacy coursework challenge was on the upcoming PARCC assessment, that’s one of the new common core or state core assessments, and showed statistically significant gains for students after eight weeks, and particularly in five out of six areas of writing including coherency and sequencing, precision and accuracy, and really the big areas of writing that are the most difficult to teach. That study really resonates with parents, communities, educators, district leaders, because writing is one of those areas where to teach and show gains in as many as eight weeks is very impactful.
The second one was a study that basically proved, does this work at scale? So aside from just one case study in one school with one rock star teacher, we showed that across 102 schools, we can show gains between one and a half and two and a half years of growth for students. And then if you narrow that down to 22 schools with our highest fidelity of implementation, can see up to three and a half to four years of growth for students which is pretty substantial, especially when you understand some of the implications of closing the achievement gap. And then another study was with LEAP Innovations here in Chicago based out of 1871, probably right down the door from you, Brian. They did a study of about, I think it was between 23 or 26 other education technology products, really to study the impact of personalized learning in schools. And the two products with the most impactful gains for students was a product called Lexia, which is really used for the younger grades. We specifically focus on students in grades four through 12. Lexia is for some of the younger students, they had great gains that I think it was two NWEA points and we had 6.3 NWEA points for students, which is basically the equivalent of an extra year of academic growth.
So, it’s been great to get that validation and those really are the KPIs that we look at. One of the difficult things is that really there’s a cycle that we measure these KPIs and it takes sometimes a whole school year. So throughout the school year now that we have this data that we know it works and there are some fidelity metrics, I obsess day in and day out over how are schools doing? Who’s using? Who’s logging in? Who’s completing the lessons in line with when they started? And so we measure our daily and monthly KPIs knowing how they’re pacing for the intended outcomes and growth.
Wow! Okay, so you’ve co-founded the company three and half years ago, what’s next for ThinkCERCA?
So now that we have these efficacy studies and are growing, we’re really focused on growing our district partnerships, growing our footprint across the country and as we raised our series A, we have a strategic partnership with Follett School Solutions, who you might remember from college or they own all of the book stores, they’re in 98% of K12 schools, and they’re dedicating parts of their sales force to help distribute ThinkCERCA. So managing that and scaling the business to have outcomes at scale is really eye on the prize for us.
Well, time flies when you are talking about something that is, very interesting, very fascinating and then also something that I think we’re all, for different reasons on the podcast today, passionate about. So, that wraps up Episode 22 of this week’s Brand Lab Series™ podcast. I’d like to thank our guest, Abby Ross, for joining us today. Before we go Abby, for those listening, whether you’re just interested in learning more, if you’re an educator, a technologist.
Sure. So visit our website at thinkcerca.com, follow us on social media, Twitter and Facebook. And also feel free to reach out at any time to firstname.lastname@example.org, happy to chat EdTech. And if you’re looking to get involved with EdTech more broadly, definitely recommend publications like EdSurge and Graphite, Common Sense Media. They have a really great roundup of education technology products through the eyes of teachers who use them.
Great. Thank you so much.
Thanks for having me, really appreciate it.
I wanna thank our listeners for joining us in the Brand Lab today, and to invite you back next Tuesday as we continue our journey of today’s most innovative brands, as we learn how they empower employees, engage consumers, design products and co-create experiences together. Until next time.
To learn more about ThinkCERCA, visit thinkcerca.com.
To listen to other Brand Lab Series™ podcast episodes visit iTunes, Google Play, or brandlabseries.com. Follow us on Twitter at @BrandLabSeries, and if you have any questions or ideas for a future Brand Lab Series™ podcast, email us at email@example.com.
Tags: Technology, Technology
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