10/05/2010 02:14 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Conjuring Conspiracies (VIDEO)

Reliably bombastic blogger Mike Klonsky calls it "Education (indoctri)Nation." Denver school board member Andrea Merida calls it "mass hysteria intended to soften public support for public schools and the teachers that serve children."

My gosh, what is this we're talking about? A newly discovered fascist plot to seize control of America's schools?

You'd almost think so. But no, what Klonsky, Merida and many others are talking about is the recently concluded, weeklong NBC News extravaganza called Education Nation. Their reaction to this flawed attempt at advocacy journalism is emblematic of the state of our national education debate.

Education Nation consisted of panel discussions, TV specials, precious minutes of national news primetime, all given over to ruminations on education reform. This extravaganza was prompted in part by the impending national release of "Waiting for 'Superman' ," a film that, whatever its merits and faults, has already achieved its stated goal of ramping up the conversation about public education in this country.

Given the super-heated atmosphere surrounding education politics, it's not surprising that people overreacted to Education Nation. And let's be honest: Education Nation wasn't objective journalism's finest hour. As Washington Post blogger Valerie Strauss said:

The events, panels and discussions were sharply tilted toward Obama's school reform agenda -- focused in part on closing failing schools, expanding charter schools and using standardized test scores to evaluate teachers. It gave short shrift to the enormous backlash against the plan from educators and parents around the country who say that Obama's education priorities won't improve schools but will narrow curriculum and drive good teachers out of the profession.

NBC seemed to take for granted that Obama's education policies are sound and will be effective. Seasoned journalists failed to ask hard questions and fell all over their subjects to be sympathetic. It was a forum for people to repeatedly misstate the positions of their opponents.

Strauss went on to say that:

There will come a time when this current wave of "reform" proves as unsuccessful as past fads -- and journalists may look back on their fawning coverage and be very, very sorry that they gave up their objectivity on this subject.

Some of this makes sense. From what I've watched of Education Nation, I have to agree with Strauss, up to a point. And I say this as someone who sides with the thrust of the arguments put forward by the network and the reformers it positioned as heroes -- Geoffrey Canada, Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, Arne Duncan.

Andrea Mitchell's badgering interview of National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel almost made a sympathetic figure of a guy who is so good at making himself and his organization look bad. No need to assist him, Andrea!

And having Joe Scarborough (who isn't a journalist, just another ex-politician Foxesque talking-head) join the Randi Weingarten witch hunt was unbecoming as well.

Still, there were some great moments, including a few in the clip below, pitting bulldog Michelle Rhee against Weingarten in a no-holds-barred back and forth from which Rhee emerged victorious:

What's disheartening to me is that people opposed to the current reform agenda are taking Education Nation and "Waiting for 'Superman' " and concluding that a nefarious corporate plot is afoot to undermine public education.

Whip-smart blogger Sabrina Stevens Shupe, whom I respect and often disagree with, went a bit over the top on The Huffington Post, writing:

The kind of school reform that gets significant airtime right now - a combination of school closures and/or conversions, merit pay, test-based accountability, executive control of schools, and standardization - is a corporate one, and the corporate interests that created it are also funding the PR campaign to sell it. The Gates, Broad, and Walton Foundations, along with for-profit education organizations and hedge fund managers, have helped fund the creation and promotion of movies like "The Lottery" and "Waiting for 'Superman,' " events like NBCs Education Nation, and "grassroots" activist groups like Stand for Children, Education Reform Now, and Done Waiting. They donate to politicians as well.

This is becoming a familiar trope from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. It's as if anyone who has ever been motivated at any point in their life by turning a profit is corrupt to the depth of his or her soul. Please. Let's be adults about this.

Why take legitimate criticisms and inflate them to the point that they become caricatures of themselves? It's fine to think standardized tests, performance pay, value-added teacher evaluations and other currently popular reforms are wrongheaded. But let's not wander into conspiracy theory la-la land, please. It might energize your base, but your base is small, so it's bad politics.

Last week, I posted a video of Colorado state Sen. Mike Johnston giving an impassioned argument for school reform. What I didn't post was the Q&A. that followed. During the Q&A I asked him about the current backlash against reform and why it has become so strong and at times vicious. His response makes a fitting conclusion to this column.

It's all about politics, Johnston said. Reformers are winning on the policies and programs front. But if they don't win on the politics front, "the policies and program go away." He cited the defeat of Adrian Fenty in the D.C. mayoral primary (and the imminent departure of Rhee) as an example.

Closer to home, Johnston said the 2011 Denver school board races will be pivotal. Three seats are up. Two must be vacated by term-limited reformers Theresa Peña and Bruce Hoyt. If either of those seats are lost, Denver's ambitious new schools agenda, which is showing real promise, will likely go up in smoke.

And what will take its place? No one knows. People fighting the current reform wave are well-intentioned and passionate. But until they can put forward a specific set of alternative programs and policies that will make a difference for kids, their parroting of the "status quo is unacceptable" line will sound like the platitude it is.