Dear Secretary Bennett:

You have written me -- as well as many others, no doubt -- asking for thoughts on the state of American education. You want some fresh ideas for a sequel to the 1983 report "A Nation At Risk." Fair enough. Writing is my business, and I'm happy to oblige with a few subversive views.

To be blunt, the reform so far has been tepid. Of course, there's huge variety, because control over the schools lies in states and nearly 16,000 school districts. Many of their reform efforts move in the right direction. Course requirements and standards are being toughened. Teachers are being paid more. But most changes remain cosmetic. We haven't yet faced the basic problem, which lies in public attitudes: Since World War II we have felt that sending more students further in school would produce a better-educated society. We wanted to open college to everyone. We mistook schooling for education.

We get the schools we deserve, as historian Diane Ravitch has written. We have graduated more people with degrees, but the degrees have meant less -- and sometimes they haven't meant anything. In a sense, mass mediocrity has been the policy. Today's most-needed education reform is to reverse that policy: to cut back on so-called "higher education" and to bolster high schools.

It's true that some test scores have recently risen. But evidence of educational shortcomings still abounds. Consider the experience of the New York Telephone Co. Applicants for its entry-level jobs, such as operators and clerks, must pass basic tests in vocabulary, numbers and problem-solving. In the first half of 1987, only 16 percent of 22,880 applicants passed. A study by Ravitch and Chester E. Finn Jr., a top official in your department, found that 17-year-old high school students have huge gaps in their knowledge of history and literature. Only 32 percent knew that the Civil War occurred in the last half of the 19th century.

Unfortunately, the usual suggestions for improving the schools are unpromising. Democrats propose we spend more; the trouble is that we have been spending more. Per pupil spending (adjusted for inflation) has risen about 50 percent since 1969. Some Republicans embrace "vouchers," which would give parents funds for either public or private schools. Competing for students, it's argued, would reinvigorate public schools. Actually, vouchers might weaken the public schools by draining away the best students and most engaged parents. Support for public education could wane.

What's too easy and available cheapens in value. The point of cutting back on college is not to make it an elite experience. It's to improve both college and high school. High school remains the last basic education for most Americans. What states save by spending less on colleges should be used to raise salaries for public-school teachers. But money isn't the main problem. The pressing needs are to attract superior teachers and to create a climate in which students want to learn. Here's what I'd suggest:

The states should close 15 to 20 percent of their universities, colleges and community colleges. Almost anyone who wants to go to college can. All that's required is a high school degree. Only elite state and private schools remain selective. Standards suffer. High school loses its relevance because students know they can go on to the next stage. Once in college, they're less prepared. The result is huge waste and personal disappointment. About half of college freshmen don't graduate.

The federal government should adopt academic requirements -- minimum scores on standardized tests -- for guaranteed college loans. States should raise tuitions at their colleges and universities. Subsidizing those who are unqualified or can afford to pay is senseless. Student tuition and fees at state schools average only 40 percent of those charged by private colleges and universities. Higher tuition revenues should be used to raise scholarships for needy, qualified students.

States should end the standard certification route for public school teachers -- a degree (or courses) from teachers' colleges. To get better teachers requires a larger pool of candidates. Teachers should know more about what they teach: science, mathematics, English, history. We need tougher teacher-competency tests that anyone could take. Teachers colleges would then focus more on substance, less on teaching methods. These are vital, but should be taught by the schools. New teachers shouldn't be tossed into classrooms; they need better orientation courses and more time as assistants to experienced teachers.

Of course, these ideas won't be popular. Some may think them radical. They offend public sensibilities and many interest groups. College presidents don't want to shrink their colleges. Teachers usually don't welcome extra competition for their jobs or tougher standards. The trouble is that these problems don't fool our children. They recognize poor teachers. They know colleges are begging for students. They sense that society values schooling, not education.

It would be nice if all students liked school. That has never happened and probably never will. What's vital is that most students think education matters for their future. We are failing at that. The Ravitch-Finn study found that two-thirds of high school seniors do an hour or less of homework a night. A survey by The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching asked high school teachers to judge serious school problems. Student apathy was mentioned by more than two-thirds, student absenteeism by more than half and disruptive classroom behavior by about a third.

You cannot change the schools singlehandedly. Power in our school system is decentralized. But you can prod people to think critically. We won't deserve the schools that we need until we shed some popular illusions. No one benefits from a system built on well-intentioned fictions. People ultimately discover whether they have the skills and knowledge they need in life. Degrees are meaningless if they don't signify real accomplishments. It's time we absorbed -- and acted upon -- that lesson