Photo: ThinkCERCA Facebook

How many times have you heard that the American education system is failing? Your neighbor, your sister-in-law, even your paperboy all have an opinion on education in the United States.

It seems as though ever since the National Commission on Excellence in Education published A Nation at Risk, we, as a country, have been having a collective panic attack about how much our students are not learning. The 1983 report, commissioned under President Reagan, detailed the state of education in the United States.

Based on the title, it appeared that the state was not good.

This anxiety is not without warrant. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2012, the United States spent $11,700 per full time student. That is 31 percent higher than the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) average of $9,000.

And yet, taxpayers get relatively little bang for their buck. Of the 34 member countries of the OECD, the United States ranked 17th in reading, 20th in science and a dismal 27th in math in 2012. These scores put us on par with Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, Norway, Portugal, Russia, the Slovak Republic, Spain and Sweden.

Here in Chicagoland, headlines are often about the latest teacher-led protest, a severe lack of funding and low educational outcomes. And while those concerns are real and true, there is reason for hope right in our own backyard.

Several Education Technology (EdTech) companies based in Chicago are trying to rewrite the story of what learning can look like, both here in Chicago and across the country. LEAP Innovations, Inquirium and ThinkCERCA are consistently putting out creative products in an attempt to make education more equitable for all while raising the collective standards in the U.S. education system.

Designing Learning

After meeting at Northwestern University as PhD students, Matthew Brown, Eric Baumgartner and Ben Loh formed Inquirium, LLC in 2001.  

Image: Facebook

Image: Facebook

The goal, as Brown states, was to “bring to a wider audience the same sort of cutting edge, learner and teacher-centered…technologies [we found] at Northwestern.”

And since its inception, Inquirium has been doing just that. The company specializes in creating immersive interfaces where students can learn in nontraditional environments, such as museums, smartphones and online gaming.

Changing the Way We Think About Literacy

With the recent implementation of — and subsequent controversy over — the Common Core State Standards, teachers across grade levels have had to think seriously about what it means to be literate.

ThinkCERCA focuses on creating personalized literacy instruction across various subjects. Founder Eileen Murphy has the credentials to back up the instruction the organization provides; she was a former English teacher at Walter Payton College Prep and noticed the disconnect between EdTech tools and their implementation in schools.

Following a five-step model, students learn to use the acronym CERCA in analyzing text, which stands for:

  • Claim
  • Evidence
  • Reasoning
  • Counterargument
  • Audience

Teachers and parents can go online and sign up for service. Here, they will find curated content based on subject matter, including science and math. These adults can then assign appropriate text to students and track their growth in literacy based on the platform’s diagnostic tools.

What’s more, ThinkCERCA is designed to be implemented into classrooms as needed; it can support other reading programs instead of having to be implemented wholesale.

Personalized and Powerful

Although all three of the organizations highlighted here are innovative in their own right, LEAP Innovations is alike ThinkCERCA in the fact that they can both boast of a nod of recognition from the legendary Bill Gates.

Image: Facebook

Image: Facebook


Lead by CEO Phyllis Lockett, who was an influential member of establishing charter school networks in Chicago, LEAP Innovations works not only with students, but also with teachers, principals and schools.

Think of LEAP Innovations has an EdTech consultant. The organization connects schools with innovative technologies and makes sure that these technologies are implemented well.

LEAP Innovations has gotten so successful at this that they, along with Next Generation Learning Challenges and The Fund, run Breakthrough Schools: Chicago. This $4 million competition has the goal of bringing Chicago schools into the 21st century with best practices that will, if all goes according to their plan, be disseminated throughout the education system.

The Silicon Classroom

As all of these organizations demonstrate, the very core of how we think about learning — how we do it and how we value it — is changing. Through the work of these EdTech companies, many Chicago students are experiencing the benefits of this change.

These groups are bringing a bit of the magic of Silicon Valley — the birthplace of ubiquitous companies such as Google, Facebook and Apple — to the classroom. And, perhaps, that knowledge can provide a bit of hope that our schools will soon no longer be a part of a nation at risk.

Until then, check out the other positive impact your fellow Chicagoans are having on education.