ThinkCERCA Founder and CEO Eileen Murphy Buckley: Teaching Analytical Learning Skills

Kenna McHugh, Learning Counsel Writer


In 2012, CEO Eileen Murphy Buckley founded ThinkCERCA, an online platform for personalized literacy instruction including all four core subjects–ELA, Social Studies, Science, and Math. A professional teacher and curriculum developer for over two decades, she played many roles in education from a leader who developed school improvement strategies based on instructional leadership development to a founding English department chair at the top-ranked college preparatory high school in Chicago. She authored 360 Degrees of Text: Teaching Close Reading and Academic Writing through Poetry and the companion student textbook.

“I founded ThinkCERCA to give all students, regardless of their readiness level or socioeconomic background, access to high-quality teaching and learning so ultimately they develop the skills needed to consume information, think about it critically, and express their point of view effectively.”

The "CERCA" in ThinkCERCA designates its system of teaching students how to make Claims, support their claims with Evidence, explain their Reasoning clearly, address Counterarguments, and use language appropriate for their Audience. “ThinkCERCA provides schools with the platform, resources and research-based curriculum to teach these analytical skills at scale in any school environment,” said Buckley.

As a former English teacher and district administrator, she founded her company with the traditional purpose of education in mind. The standards to equip people with the necessary skills to consume information, think about it critically, and express their point of view effectively. “I know first-hand just how difficult the 21st-century skills of critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity are to teach as well as learn,” explains Buckley. “The Four Cs are honed through regular literacy practice – specifically close reading, writing, and peer-to-peer discussion and debate – across content areas.”

She knows facilitating this kind of instruction takes adequate time, resources, and training. “Far too often, a student’s zip code determines his or her access to these skills.”

Buckley credits teachers as half the reason kids come to school, and the other half is their peers. “We believe both are essential to learning the reading, writing, listening and speaking skills required for 21st-century success.”

The company’s platform adheres to the University of Chicago’s Five Essentials research, indicating five factors behind successful school improvement: Ambitious and Rigorous Instruction, Effective Leaders, Collaborative Teachers, Involved Families and Supportive Environments. “Building on this research, ThinkCERCA is designed to create a simple, common language for inviting everyone onto the students’ literacy team, including parents, who often feel left out by school jargon,” explains Buckley. “By demystifying the process of making claims, supporting them with evidence, explaining your reasoning clearly, addressing counterarguments civilly, and using audience-appropriate language, we break down a lot of barriers inside and outside the school.”

One of the challenges for Implementing ThinkCERCA in the classroom for many is that blended literacy, teaching literacy through online as well as offline experiences.  “Often, we think of curriculum as paper-based and teacher-led and intervention as digital and computer-led. To implement a digital curriculum that engages teachers and peers in the students’ learning process is an innovation. We help schools implement best literacy practices within a blended learning environment by providing lots and lots of resources for administrators and teachers along the way,” explains Buckley.

ThinkCERCA’s goal is to provide district leaders with a platform for managing literacy growth. “Just like in other industries where platforms serve specialized purposes, we want district leaders to have actionable insights into student literacy growth and the impact of reading and writing experiences in driving those results. Not a dashboard that connects a bunch of disconnected instructional experiences neatly, but a dashboard that shows connected instructional experiences on a continuum of both skill and knowledge.”

Buckley recalls when she first began as the district leader for Chicago Public Schools, “I had no idea what we were responsible for in educating 111,000 students nor what they were experiencing, and what was working and what wasn’t working. It meant I couldn’t share the magic of what one teacher was doing with other teachers. I needed a way to harness both the art and science of teaching and learning. That is what our platform can do because education doesn’t happen without both. We are not educating robots -- we’re educating human beings.”

Her primary focus as CEO is expanding the company’s impact on student learning outcomes. She focuses on helping district leaders understand how ThinkCERCA supports systems-level initiatives in literacy and ensures her product stays true to the instructional design, and delivers predictable student results.

Buckley talks of a success story where her company partnered with Bibb County School District in Georgia and the district's superintendent, Dr. Curtis Jones, just won National Superintendent of the Year. The instructional team came together around their platform and helped students who historically gained one point of reading growth per year. Their scores jumped an average of seventeen points on their recent standardized tests. “Those are life-changing, door-opening, confidence-building results that change whole communities. That’s how we define success,” shares Buckley.

Reflecting on her tenure as a teacher, “I used to say that I never worked a day as a teacher. I loved every minute of it, and miss it very much, but the magic of technology is that in our launch year alone, I had a hand in educating more students than I had in my 15 years in a classroom.”

She is amazed by the fact that technology has the power to amplify the impact on teachers and to provide equitable access to education. “Technology, after all, has the same expectations of every student and yet the ability to allow students to self-help in ways we can’t possibly do.”

“I look forward to a time when teaching, which, like other helping professions that are so predominantly female, will achieve the same status as other professions that we consider essential to society. As John Adams once wrote, ‘The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of a one-mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.’

“We need to hold ourselves accountable as a society for educating our youth and hold ourselves accountable as educators for student results,” said Buckley.

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