THE DECLINE OF America's public schools is by now a dismayingly familiar story. Until a slight rise this year, SAT scores had plummeted, uninterrupted, since 1963. The teaching of math and science has so atrophied that a 1981 National Science Foundation report warned of imminent "scientific illiteracy." About 1-in-6 high school graduates can't read or write above an eighth-grade level; for black youth, the incidence of functional illiteracy is closer to 1-in-2. This last statistic is a grim reminder that the main victims of poor schools are the very same children who desperately need a good education to overcome poverty and racial discrimination.

The magnitude of this failure is tragic enough; even more distressing is the fact that this deterioration has occurred under the stewardship of public education's ostensible friends. With liberals leading the charge, spending on private and secondary education increased nearly six-fold in the last two decades, more than keeping up with inflation. According to the National Education Association, class size dropped from 25.6 students per teacher to less than 19. In the name of academic relevance, electives proliferated, giving students an unprecedented opportunity to tailor their education to their personal desires.

So what went wrong? And what can be done about it? Both Collins and Adler address these fairly simple yet daunting questions -- Collins in the specific terms of classroom teaching and Adler in a far more sweeping look at the purpose of education in a democratic society.

Thanks largely to a laudatory profile on 60 Minutes and a made-for-TV movie starring Cicely Tyson, Collins' story should also be a familiar one. Collins quit the Chicago public schools in 1975 to establish Westside Preparatory School, where she could practice her somewhat unorthodox teaching methods. Collins tossed out the popular "look-say method" of teaching reading by training children to associate words with pictures, replacing it with a phonics program; she also assigned such authors as Shakespeare and Dostoevski to fourth graders. In the initial blush of publicity surrounding dramatic increases in her students' test scores, Collins was often referred to as a "super teacher" and a "miracle worker." More recently, controversy has attended her; she has been called a "hoax" by fellow teachers and accused of exaggerating test score results, misrepresenting her acceptance of federal money, and teaching without a proper certificate.

This generally uncritical biography by Civia Tamarkin, with commentary by Collins, doesn't adequately answer some of the charges, particularly those about test scores. But Collins' foibles are not, and never should have been, the point. As the many compelling success stories that are documented here reveal, Collins is nothing more and nothing less than an excellent and dedicated teacher. Sadly enough, that alone has always made her stand out among her peers. One of the most interesting parts of her book describes her ostracism by fellow public school teachers who felt threatened by her refusal to acquiesce in the system and treat students' failures as faculty-room jokes rather than badges of dishonor. Indeed, Collins is telling proof of the speciousness of the criticism that she lacks a teaching certificate, proving that enthusiasm and a genuine concern for students is worth far more than any paper credential.

The underlying theme in Collins' book -- that "any child can be a real achiever" -- is taken one step further in Adler's ringing manifesto. Adler, a philosopher and chairman of the Encylcopaedia Britannica editorial board, contends that a major villain in the decline of public education is the tracking system, which separates students of various abilities into separate programs of varying difficulty. Adler urges abolition of such things as vocational education and the establishment of a common course of study that includes the basic disciplines and emphasizes the Socratic method. Continuation of the present system, he contends, threatens nothing less than democracy itself; by giving a good education only to a privileged few. Adler's credo is that "The best education for the best is the best education for all."

Like Collins, Adler understands that our schools have betrayed their students by expecting so little of them, and in many cases glossing over their outright failures. Nothing better illustrates this misguided and destructive compassion than the popularity of "social promotion," whereby students who have not mastered their material are promoted to the next grade anyway on the theory that the "stigma" of failure will inflict far more psychological damage than the inability to read or write.

Nevertheless, Adler's proposal has its serious shortcomings. The concept that every student can be educated to the same degree is a noble one, though in practice it is dangerously unrealistic. As any thoughtful teacher knows, it takes only a few disruptive students to poison the learning atmosphere for all concerned, and rather than tolerate such students teachers need to have more authority to remove them from the classroom. It's difficult to discuss the nuances of Macbeth when students are setting fires in the classroom or pulling knives on one another.

But the most serious impediment to implementing Adler's program lies in the same people on whom the system depends: the teachers. Marva Collins may be up to the task, but the fact she has too little company is reflected in some disturbing statistics. For example, of those college freshmen in 1979-80 planning to become teachers, the average SAT verbal score was 339 -- a dismal 80 points below the national average. In one Southern California district a literacy test given to prospective teaching applicants (all had credentials) was geared to the eighth-grade level, yet one-third failed one or more parts. To put it bluntly, it is naive to ask our teachers to instill in students a love and appreciation of classical literature and physics when many of them have never read the texts or are incapable of understanding the equations.

This is what ultimately disappoints about both books: though they correctly identify some of the fundamental problems in American education, they lead readers to believe restoring excellence to the public schools will require nothing more onerous than abolishing tracking and replacing "See Billy Run" books with Shakespeare. But the problems of public education are deeper than that and involve powerful institutions with strong interests in preserving things as they are. Teachers' colleges who want to keep enrollments up will steadfastly resist any effort (as Adler recommends) to abolish credential requirements. School administrators who traditionally prefer harmony will be reluctant to risk the uncertainties and inevitable discipline problems a more rigorous academic program will entail. Most important, teachers unions that are dedicated to protecting all their members, particuarly the incompetent ones, will oppose any effort to replace bad teachers with bright and dedicated ones who can duplicate Collins' success.

The widespread enthusiasm that has greeted both Collins and The Paideia Proposal is a heartening sign that people are beginning to recognize the dire straits our public schools are in. The next step is for public education's friends, particularly those on the left, to realize that the revitalization of our schools will require casting aside some cherished notions about "individual choice."

Most important, they must realize that rescuing the schools means putting the interests of the students above those of powerful institutions whvilo may proclaim their support for public schools, but who have far more selfish motives in mind.