What could American public education look like when we shift its definition from being a collection of district bureaucracies and other traditional entities to a system of publicly financing high-quality educational opportunities? One example could be found in Technology, Entertainment and Design, the collection of annual conferences featuring global and local thoughtleaders whose annual TED Talks conference in Long Beach, Calif., now rivals Davos and Allen & Co.’s famed Sun Valley Conference as a major convening for top players.

geniuslogoOver the past decade, TED has expanded far beyond the original Talks confab. Since 2008, its TEDx operation has worked with top professionals and budding thinkers in locales as varied as Bozeman, Montana, to pull together the kind of conferences and learning sessions that could only be attended by those either lucky enough to attend the main TED Talks, big city denizens who could go to their local cultural institution, or the lucky few who lived near such university towns as , Ind. These days, some 1,300 TEDx gatherings are held annually around the world Bloomington , allowing even those in small towns and rural areas with big ideas to build cultures of genius for their communities. In fact, one can say the quality of many of the TEDx sessions are so good that they rival the lectures given each day on university campuses. Meanwhile the main TED Talks are now easy to access online thanks to the organization’s decision in 2006 to distribute the sessions online; one can now easily watch such sessions as former Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation official Tom Vander Ark’s symposium on the development of online and blended learning.

As Microsoft staffer (and Vander Ark’s former editor at what is now Getting Smart) Douglas Crets points out, TED is essentially exploiting the reality that “Academia is less expensive to create than before”. The TEDx sessions, in particular, are now fostering a new generation of public intellectuals whose ideas may end up influencing how we see the world. This is because the TEDx sessions, like the main TED Talks before it, allow any man or woman with amazing ideas to gain influence without first having to attain the pedigree once conveyed by university tenure and writing in academic journals. One can only imagine the potential that TED has yet to exploit: The TED Talks library is already a sort of online learning operation without   without exams and the ability to earn a baccalaureate or graduate degree; TED could actually go further and offer degrees or professional certificates on its own. TED could also bring together the highest-quality and most-interesting of the TEDx conferences to create a sort of blended learning effort that could be as good as any from a traditional or for-profit higher ed institution.

Certainly this isn’t exactly pleasing to those in traditional higher education circles. Harvard economist Umair Haque (the subject of Crets’ recent round of critical tweets) declares that TED sessions “devalue the very idea of great ideas, stripping them into commodities” largely because those ideas aren’t going through traditional university filters. From where Haque sits, TED offers nothing more than ” sexy-info-McNuggets” that don’t have the supposed “subtlety and inherent difficulty of truly great ideas” that Haque thinks he offers. Some of his colleagues would scoff at the idea of  TED being a higher ed institution. [Of course, one has to beg askance of anyone who tosses around terms such as “neofeudalism” which are meaningless to thinkers and the general public alike.] But anyone who is familiar with higher ed can attest, the reality is that association with a traditional university isn’t a true signal of quality, either in scholarship or in ideas. From the dubious scholarship of the likes of infamous black studies professor Leonard Jeffries and ethnic studies scholar Ward Churchill, to the reality that most top-ranked universities are so because of their graduate programs (while their undergraduate courses can often be shoddy because of the perverse consequences of tenure being awarded based on research instead of quality of instruction), being an academic superstar doesn’t necessarily mean being worthy of consideration in the marketplace of ideas. And considering the slipshod nature of the accreditation process by which universities are blessed — which has allowed degree mills such as the now-shuttered Southeastern University in Washington, D.C. to operate unchecked for decades — one can easily say that TED’s session would likely be better than what is offered by far too many campuses.

The disruption that TED is wrecking upon the definition of what being an academic and public intellectual can be is amazing to watch. The fact that TED’s efforts plays into the redefining of higher education that began with the online learning efforts of Apollo Group’s University of Phoenix and has advanced with universities such as MIT offering non-credit courses online is also reaffirming Crets’ argument that academia can be replicated less expensively than ever. And these sorts of disruptions and redefinitions are now happening in American public education.

The growth of public charter schools, which are now either the dominant or number two providers of K-12 education in cities such as New Orleans and Detroit, has exposed  the ineffectiveness of Zip Code Education practices that have long been used by traditional districts to ration what was considered high-quality education. When poor and minority families learn that they can send their child to any high-quality school they so choose, they no longer accept such racialist policies as the norm. This expansion of charters is, in turn, fueling the expansion of other vehicles for school choice, including the creation of vouchers and voucher-like tax credits in more than 15 states over the past three years. More importantly, the expansion of choice has allowed for the development of new models of building school cultures that nurture the genius of all children, and have accelerated the end of the traditional district model whose emphasis on scale is obsolete in an age in which quality of teaching and curricula matters. It has also spurred the passage of Parent Trigger laws in seven states (with more on the way) that allow families to overhaul schools in their neighborhoods as well as to expand the meaning of choice to mean more than escaping failure.

Charters have also shown clearly that families, community groups, and even churches can launch schools that provide high-quality education. AT the same time, it is more than just about providing kids with good and great teachers. Because charter operators can structure their curricula to meet the cultural and even religious needs of the children they serve, it has opened opportunities for American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian communities to launch schools that provide both comprehensive college preparatory curricula and full immersion in one’s culture or language. This isn’t exactly pleasing to traditionalists who like Horace Mann in the mid-19th century only want children to abide by what is essentially a civic religion. But this redefinition of what public education is also fits into what America’s Founding Fathers wanted the nation to be: A nation in which life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and cultural pluralism is the norm and not the exception.

The emergence of the Knowledge is Power Program as one of the nation’s premiere charter school operators — as well as the success of Green Dot, Rocketship, and other players — has offered a new approach to structuring the operations of American public education. Just as importantly, their work in providing high-quality teaching and curricula in big-city locales long dogged by failure mills has also broken the myth that only good and great schools can only be available to families in suburbia (as well as magnified the failures of suburban districts in improving the achievement of its poor and middle class kids). One cautions against the idea of charter school operators becoming bigger; after all, the scale of the traditional district is one reason why so many fail in providing high-quality instruction and curricula. At the same time, one can imagine even more charter operators emerging to serve urban and even rural locales where high-quality schooling is the exception and not the norm.

But the disruption isn’t just happening in school operations and governance. The emergence of Teach For America as the leading alternative to traditional ed schools — accounting for 10,000 new teachers coming into the profession in 2012 — has spurred the launch of new teacher prep programs geared toward moving away from the traditional focus on theory and toward successful real-life teaching. Ed schools continue to harp on the fact that TFA recruits only have two-year stints and try to dismiss the quality of its preparation. But as more data shows that TFA does a better job than ed schools  in training teachers for the rigors of working in urban classrooms — and the emergence of school leaders from its ranks such as Indianapolis Deputy Mayor Jason Kloth (who runs the city’s education initiatives) proves the value of its focus on recruiting subject-competent collegians with strong entrepreneurial self-starter and leadership abilities — the failures of ed schools in selecting and training aspiring teachers is magnified. It is even spurring the launch of new graduate schools of education outside of traditional higher ed such as the Relay Graduate School launched by charter school operator Uncommon Schools, KIPP, and Achievement First.

Meanwhile the dominance of state governments over teacher certification — which has proven long ago to be useless in vetting the quality of teachers working in classrooms — will also be disrupted. The U.S. Bureau of Indian Education, for example, could easily launch a certification process of its own, allowing for it to improve the quality of teaching in every one of its schools throughout the country (and no longer having to put up with 23 states and their respective teacher and principal certification processes). Such a move would make sense given its effort to essentially bring order to its role as both a charter school authorizer and state education agency of sorts. One can easily imagine teacher quality reform outfit TNTP effectively doing the same thing — this time with an emphasis on performance in improving student achievement over time instead of merely passing the less-than-useful Praxis exams — and helping school operators gain access to a steady stream of high-quality teaching talent.

Then there are the innovations that are likely to come from Common Core reading and math standards. One of the most-appealing aspects of the standards lie in that they do more than just emphasis  providing students with strong college preparatory curricula. Because the standards focus also on critical thinking — from comparing and contrasting ideas, to linking ideas across in writing and reading — it allows anyone, including teachers and families, to craft high-quality curricula on their own. This isn’t exactly appealing to traditional textbook publishers or to the most-radical of traditionalists. But as Peter Zamora of the Council of Chief State School Officers noted yesterday at a panel on Native education, it throws open the doors of curriculum development to anyone with substantive ideas on what kids should learn. Even Native Hawaiian teachers can weave cultural content into, say, a discussion about Romeo and Juliet. 

Yet the possibilities are just emerging. Imagine if there was a TED for education, starting with a series of annual learning sessions taught by high-quality teachers — including mothers and fathers who have proven success in homeschooling —  on the national stage, then launching a franchising system in which families, teachers, community groups, churches, and others can start schools under that umbrella. Such as effort could help nurture emerging teachers and school leaders who don’t have to go through traditional teacher compensation systems or deal with the perverse consequences of seniority-based privileges on teacher quality. At the same time, such an effort could even reshape how we teach children in classrooms. One of the grim realities is that the average classroom and approach to instruction looks little different than it did 160 years ago, even as the world have moved away from the Pony Express to the World Wide Web. A new collection of schools could spur changes that haven’t yet been imagined.

Certainly traditionalists in K-12, like their peers in higher ed, aren’t too happy with these changes. After all, from where they sit, all of these disruptions are the end of public education as they think it should be. The fact that the new definition of American public education includes charter schools operated by corporate and nonprofit outfits , as well as a more-active role in shaping curricula by the likes of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is particularly intolerable to them. In fact, the This is true — and it is a good thing. For far too long, the traditional policies and practices in American public education has  policies and practices have done little more than condemn 1.1 million children a year to poverty and prison. From condemning young men of all backgrounds to special ed ghettos, to the overuse of suspensions and expulsions, to the unwillingness to use data in addressing instruction and leadership, to even the continued operating of schools and districts that have long ago proven inept at serving children,  the traditional public education model hasn’t worked for families and children for a long time (if it ever did). It is high time to toss the old definition of public education into history’s trash can where it belongs.

What’s clear is this: That public education is not about the kind of organization that provides instruction and curricula, but how it is financed and regulated. Charter schools, private schools, online schools, DIY operations, and even teachers working together or on their own, are as capable to provide high-quality education (and even promote good citizenship) as a traditional district. What matters more is not whether the school operators are government or private, but whether they provide our children with good-to-great teachers, strong, comprehensive college-preparatory curricula, and cultures of genius that nurture the genius inherent in all kids. Those school operators that don’t provide high-quality education, be they traditional, charter, or private, should not be allowed to exist, while those that do the job deserve praise and support.

We need more TEDs and KIPPs in American public education. And we need to keep redefining public education in order to achieve this ideal: Helping children gain the knowledge and skills they need to build brighter futures for themselves and the world around them.