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The World's Top 10 Most Innovative Companies of 2015 in Education

From inspiring life-long learning to empowering teachers, these organizations are taking the education business to school.

[Photo: Flickr user Samantha Marx]

1. General Assembly

For teaching the skills workers need now. This learning center, which expanded last year from nine to 13 cities, teaches the skills that businesses need today—digital marketing, mobile development, data science, and the like. And students are flocking in. General Assembly’s annual class hours have shot up from 117,012 to 260,176. The organization already has 10,000 alumni, and 90% of them have found a job within three months of completing their courses—and 99% of grads have secured employment within a year. Tuition ranges from $3,500 for part-time courses to $10,000 for a full-time, 10-week program. So far, $1.57 million in financial aid has been distributed to students, thanks to partnerships with loan providers Earnest and Climb. And the organization is now establishing certifications for its curriculum, to reinforce to companies that their degrees have merit.
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2. Revolution Foods

For reminding schools that healthy bodies lead to healthy minds. Every Day, Revolution Foods provides 300,000 of what it calls "real food" meals to schoolchildren in 25 cities, for only $3 apiece. That’s 300,000 fewer mystery meats gut-bombing America’s future. And get this: Kids like it. Revolution is tweaking foods that students are familiar with—engineering a healthier hot dog, say—and then involving its tough critics in the recipe design process. The company’s chefs visit classrooms to do taste tests, providing children whose idea of food criticism is often, "Eww!" with colored cards to express themselves. The proof is in the (natural, additive-free) pudding, with revenue quadrupling from $18 million to $80 million over the past five years. And to achieve greater bargaining power with suppliers, Revolution is now also expanding into healthy Lunchables-style boxed meals. The products are sold in 2,000-plus grocery stores, including Safeway and Whole Foods.
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3. Bridge International Academies

For bringing high-quality, affordable schools to the developing world. A fragmented market of for-profit schools has been exploding in Africa and Asia for over a decade. Now Bridge International Academies is introducing scale and quality control, with a tightly managed model that provides a year's worth of schooling for the cost of dinner in Manhattan. The organization operates the largest chain of for-profit schools in Africa; this year it’s expanding beyond Kenya and Uganda into Nigeria while serving more than 120,000 students, all taught by local, Bridge-trained instructors. Already, one in 100 Kenyan students attends a Bridge academy—and outperforms peers at neighboring schools in reading (scoring 35% higher than average) and math (19%), with results continuing to improve. The company’s wildly ambitious goal: to educate 10 million students per year by 2025.

4. Summit Public Schools

For creating a best-in-class model of blended learning. Education insiders seem to love California-based Summit Public Schools—and all for different but related reasons. Some point to the public charter-school network’s approach to blended learning, with an ever-evolving curriculum of personalized "playlists." Others praise Summit’s poachworthy teachers, who led the design of the playlist model and successfully prepare 96% of the school network’s students to attend a four-year college. Still others note the eight-week Expeditions, when students pursue passion projects—and teachers have time together to reflect, plan, and innovate. And increasingly, fans mention the network’s generosity, as Summit has convened other schools for a peek under the hood of its custom-built technology. All told, the network’s influence far outstrips its growing footprint of nine schools.

5. Democrats for Education Reform

For sparking a new willingness to battle for education reform. A California lawsuit made headlines last summer when a Los Angeles judge ruled that the state’s laws concerning teacher hiring, firing, and tenure were unconstitutional, due to their disproportionate impact on low-income and minority students. The suit, backed by deep-pocketed donors, revealed an important shift: Education’s most contentious debates increasingly play out in local elections and legal filings, and early mover Democrats for Education Reform is in many ways responsible for awakening a new generation of Democrat-leaning leaders (and donors) to the realities of political hardball. Whether or not you agree with DFER’s policy positions, their impact is undeniable: "There were a lot of people who believed that if you supported good ideas, good schools, people would make room for you," says Joe Williams, the executive director. "I think that that notion has been nipped in the bud."

6. Edcamp

For nurturing a grassroots teacher movement. Most teachers' professional development is a check-the-box chore, mandated from on high and led by nonpractitioner "experts." Edcamps—loosely affiliated, teacher-run "unconferences" that take place on Saturdays and during the summer—are turning that traditional model on its head. Teachers lead sessions based on their own interests and expertise; recent topics include "How do we define ‘literacy’ in a new media world?" and "How can we foster creativity in problem-solving?" Cofounder Kristen Swanson works by day as senior director of the research institute at education startup BrightBytes, and by night collaborates with Edcamp organizers around the world, who in the last five years have hosted more than 550 events in 15 countries. She hopes to encourage educators to see themselves, and their colleagues, as professionals with valuable expertise to share. "I want to get to a day where we say, ‘Edcamp, we do that all the time, it’s just the way we do business,’" she says. It’s not an impossible dream: Sweden has already adopted the model as its preferred form of professional development.

7. Google

For developing teacher-friendly tools at budget-friendly prices. Chromebooks, Google’s cheap but functional answer to Apple’s iPads and laptops, are fast becoming school districts’ hardware of choice, with analysts estimating that education buyers snapped up over 4 million of them in 2014. Google Apps, which last year introduced new functionality for tracking class rosters and assignments, has in turn won over teachers. And don’t forget YouTube Education, which boasts over 10 million subscribers and prominent content contributors like Khan Academy, which initially built its entire learning platform on the Google-owned video site. Like many companies, Google cloaks its education activities in the language of social good, but you can bet that its CFO keeps close tabs on those business lines. And they’re paying off.

8. The College Board

For redesigning the SAT. It takes guts to radically change the iconic test known to generations of aspiring college students, but that’s just what the College Board, the nonprofit that oversees the SAT, has committed to doing. Starting this fall, high school juniors across the country will prepare for an assessment that has been reworked from its very core in response to criticism from students, parents, teachers, and academics. If College Board president and CEO David Coleman is successful in his overhaul, the SAT will lose its reputation as a test that can be "bought" via expensive test prep, and colleges will once again be able to rely on the test as a reliable gauge of students’ academic promise. With several years of tweaking and review now complete, it’s pencils down for the College Board and game time for test takers and admissions offices. Higher education : consensus :: oil : ___________?

9. Teachers Pay Teachers

For offering teachers a marketplace for their knowledge and experience. Watch out, Scholastic, here comes a horde of tiny new publishers. Founded in 2006 by a teacher frustrated with the resources available to him, Teachers Pay Teachers is an open marketplace for buying and selling lessons and classroom tools. The site grew in fits and starts for years before finally hitting its groove in 2014, when it topped $100 million in lifetime sales and hired former Etsy COO Adam Freed as its new CEO. "The best marketplaces often have a dynamic where the buyers and sellers are working together in concert," Freed told EdSurge.

10. Kaymbu

For bridging the gap between school and home. Thanks to messaging tools like Remind and ClassDojo, teachers and parents communicate far more frequently and easily than they did in the days of printed letters lost in the murky depths of student backpacks. Kaymbu, a young startup focused on preschools, stands out from the pack for three reasons. One, it’s visual: Photos and videos documenting classroom work and activities are at the heart of product experience. Two, it’s tech-novice friendly, with preloaded iPads for teachers paired with a simple and welcoming user experience. And three, it’s generating off-the-charts parent engagement, with email open rates fluctuating between 200% and 300%. "Here’s your child saying the alphabet for the first time, here’s your child reading"—those are kinds of email messages that parents open again and again, says CEO Kin Lo, who founded the company after his own daughter started preschool. "We’re not about assessment, we’re not about grades. We’re focused on engagement in a very human way."