Photo: ThinkCERCA / Facebook

A Guest Blog by Eileen Murphy, Founder & CEO, ThinkCERCA

“Friends of the Forge” is a guest blogger series that aims to both address issues and promote great ideas around the Chicago education system by channeling the expertise of thought leaders within the community.


Like any organization, schools work better when they are connected around a single mission. When principals have the opportunity to act as instructional leaders, and focus every part of the organization around learning outcomes, everyone wins.

In fact, in Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago, University of Chicago researchers point to “effective leadership” as one of five key elements needed for school success. Based on 10 years of research, the authors argue that “the primary responsibility of school principals is their continuous focus on improving instructional work in the classrooms.

While this may seem obvious to those of us outside of education, principals are responsible for a wide variety of initiatives that can compromise their focus on the main driver of student outcomes: helping their team implement rigorous instruction to prepare students for a future of critical thinking.

Eileen Murphy. ThinkCERCA.

Eileen Murphy. ThinkCERCA.

Despite the reality of needing to balance multiple priorities, great instructional leaders are able to mobilize and guide their teams around instructional best practices that have been proven to lead to student growth.

This is what so many principals in Chicago have been doing for years, and it is exciting to see their great results finally registering on a national scale.

In a recent New York Times op-ed, columnist David Leonhardt highlighted the positive impact Chicago principals have had in schools:

There is no better place to see the difference that principals can make than Chicago. I realize that may sound surprising, given the city’s alarming recent crime surge.

And yet: Chicago’s high school graduation rate has climbed faster than the national rate. The city’s teenagers now enroll in college at a rate only slightly below that in the rest of the country. Younger children have made big gains in reading and math, larger than in every other major city except Washington, which has a far better known success story.

As the founder and CEO of a Chicago-based ed-tech company, ThinkCERCA, former English teacher, and former director of curriculum and instruction for CPS, I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to see Chicago principals in action. And the results have been truly inspiring.

Chicago principals like Mary Dixon of Dawes Elementary School have spent years focusing on a few “right things” to improve instruction in the classroom and restructuring their resources accordingly.

In 2014, 31 percent of the nation’s schools were achieving more reading growth on the NWEA MAP assessment than Dawes students. Recognizing the importance of reading, writing, and argumentation in helping students to become college- and career-ready, Dixon worked with her team to realign their efforts around teaching literacy across disciplines.

But closing the achievement gap is no small feat. Dixon had to make a few critical decisions to get her team aligned. After developing a balanced literacy program, she used the crowdfunding site Donors Choose to acquire devices for every student.

Next, she implemented the resources her team would need to deliver personalized literacy instruction to students, including ThinkCERCA, and invested in professional development to help teachers make the most of these resources.

Photo: ThinkCERCA / Facebook

Photo: ThinkCERCA / Facebook

Simply put, she aligned the organization around the goal of student learning. As an instructional leader, she provided the time, technology, and professional support to help teachers focus their collective efforts on classroom practices that lead to student achievement.

As a result, last year Dawes students exceeded the reading growth of 90 percent of students nationally on the NWEA MAP assessment, which more than 10 million students in the United States take.

By spearheading an instructional shift to focus on literacy, Dixon transformed the life trajectories of nearly 1,200 students in just a few short years.

While principals have many plates to spin, the best principals prioritize student learning and support teams in helping every student grow.

If anyone wants to see a model of continuous improvement in schools on a large scale, I invite them to visit Chicago, where principals across the city have put these practices into place despite their very limited resources and constant battles.

As someone who has been in districts in nearly every state in the country, I have yet to see this level of sophistication anywhere else.


Eileen Murphy Buckley is the founder and CEO of ThinkCERCA, a web-based literacy platform that helps educators teach critical thinking through argumentative writing. She taught English for 15 years and was the founding English Department Chair at Walter Payton College Prep as well as the author of 360 Degrees of Text (NCTE, 2011). As the Director of Curriculum and Instruction for over 100 of Chicago’s highest performing schools, she became passionate about the role technology could play in education in the 21st century and left CPS in 2012 to develop ThinkCERCA to help all students achieve career and college readiness.