ThinkCERCA Raises $10.1 Million to Build Critical Thinkers, Readers and...


ThinkCERCA Raises $10.1 Million to Build Critical Thinkers, Readers and Writers

By Tony Wan     Sep 20, 2017

ThinkCERCA Raises $10.1 Million to Build Critical Thinkers, Readers and Writers

“Everyone’s worried about people having to learn how to code,” notes Eileen Murphy. But “there’s an even more basic level of literacy that people need to pick up,” notes the former English teacher and administrator. “Like how to write an email.”

Helping students write and reason clearly, critically and concisely is the central mission at her company, ThinkCERCA. Murphy, the co-founder and CEO, has made that message clear to at least one group of people. Today the Chicago-based company has raised $10.1 million in a Series B round led by Scott Cook, the founder of Intuit, and his wife Signe Ostby.

Other investors in the round include Chinese education firm TAL Education Group, Follett Knowledge Fund and Plum Alley Investments, along with LinkedIn’s CEO Jeff Weiner and senior vice president Mike Gamson, Deborah Quazzo (founder and managing partner of GSV Acceleration) and Sam Yagan (founder of OkCupid).

With this latest infusion, ThinkCERCA has now raised $14 million in venture funding. It has also notched another $500,000 in grants, a chunk of which came from the Gates Foundation as part of its Courseware Literacy Challenge.

Founded in 2012, ThinkCERCA offers a set of digital tools and lesson plans to help educators teach critical thinking skills across a variety of subjects, including English language arts (ELA), math, social studies and science. Some districts purchase the product as a wholesale textbook replacement for their ELA classes.

A core skill that Murphy wants to help students build is argumentation, and the company’s approach to teaching this is built into its name—Claim, Evidence, Reasoning, Counterargument, Audience (CERCA). This framework informs how ThinkCERCA designs its literacy instructional materials and lessons. Teachers can choose a lesson in the program, which guides students through a multi-step process to analyze the reading materials and write a response essay.

“People often joke about being bad at math, but they often do that with writing as well,” observes Murphy. “What we’ve found to be one of the biggest challenges is to help teachers teach writing.”

According to her, the education industry looks at “reading and writing as two separate kinds of tools.” That’s a mistake, she believes. “Writing is the way you learn to read, and the way you express an understanding of other content. Teachers teach writing to improve how kids learn.”

ThinkCERCA jostles with major textbook providers, such as Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, to be the provider of core ELA instructional materials. There are also upstart competitors offering writing tools such as Turnitin and WriteLab, which are attempting to use artificial intelligence technology to parse a student’s submission and offer constructive feedback.

With the funding, ThinkCERCA plans to add 7,000 new interactive lessons to its platform, designed for educators in grades 3 to 12. Each lesson, Murphy shares, will “break down academic standards around literacy into discrete subskills.” (For example, how do you create a claim and counterclaim?)

Currently, ThinkCERCA claims users in 220 districts across 40 states, including district-wide adoption in Fayette County Schools in Georgia, Farmington Municipal Schools in New Mexico, and Vancouver School District in Washington. Murphy also claims “significant uptake” in large urban districts such as Chicago Public Schools, Los Angeles Unified and New York City’s Department of Education.

A report from LEAP Innovations, a Chicago-based nonprofit, found ThinkCERCA to be one of two literacy products that demonstrated “encouraging” results in a pilot involving more than 50 schools.

Murphy says ThinkCERCA is “almost” cashflow positive and “getting to profitability is our immediate focus.” The company currently numbers 45 employees across the country.

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