GOVERNORS, legislators, and federal policy makers who have celebrated the upturn in academic performance and public confidence in the schools should gulp a few Excedrin. This book will surely give them a headache.

The Shopping Mall High School: Winners and Losers in the Educational Marketplace is the second volume (the first was Theodore Sizer's Horace's Compromise) sponsored by the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the National Association of Independent Schools. Researchers Arthur Powell, David Cohen, and Eleanor Farrar studied 15 high schools of varying sizes and socio-economic makeups, including four private ones. They found that the winners among high school students are the best and the brightest, the visibly troubled, and identifiably handicapped. They are winners because they are in carefully crafted programs enjoying the support of muscular coalitions. Generally, these tailored programs match gifted teachers with students in need of those gifts. These winners, however, are in the minority.

The majority -- the ordinary students -- are losers. Unserved by special programs and bereft of political allies, the unspecial drift, to use the authors' metaphor, like afternoon regulars at a shopping mall. Choosing courses randomly, they wander through an undemanding curriculum facing teachers who would often rather teach advanced students or who simply seek a safe niche. This mediocrity stems from a series of quiet deals struck between teachers and students and between high schools and society.

Thes treaties, as the authors label the deals, accommodate conflicting expectations. Classroom deals, for example, include teachers who agree to give little homework, ask easy questions, and pass everyone as long as students agree to attend class and behave themselves. Such tacit bargains produce mind-shrinking mediocrity instead of intellectual engagement.

How did such arrangements arise? The authors turn to the origins of the modern high school a century ago. Child labor laws, compulsory attendance, and other factors filled high schools, which had previously prepared a select few for college, with many different students. Some wanted to attend college; some wanted to work; some came to schools just to be with friends; some didn't have any idea of what they wanted.

BY THE 1920s, school reformers had invented a workable solution to student differences and conflicting expectations: the comprehensive high school. A varied curriculum catered to student appetites for academic and job-connected content. Students shopped among courses and picked what served their preferences. By presenting an array of subjects, placing responsiblity upon students to make choices and remaining neutral on what students should take, educators put into place the structure of a shopping mall.

By 1940, the triumph of the comprehensive high school was complete. It promised to satisfy divergent goals, held teenagers in school and graduated increasing numbers of youth. But the cost of that victory -- intellectual mediocrity -- was masked by the very features that created the triumph: varied courses, student choice, and institutional neutrality.

When the post-war generation of high school reformers criticized the purposelessness, the anti-intellectual instruction, and multiple curricula of the modern high school as academic porridge, advanced placement courses were installed. But they have simply added more stores to the shopping mall and have done little for the average student.

The authors of Shopping Mall High School see no golden age for the high school. Contrary to the National Commission on Excellence in Education report (1983), which saw "a rising tide of mediocrity" overwhelming previously excellent schools, they argue that most students have been mired in third-rateness all along.

They are right on the mark in their analysis of the high school and its origins. They also hit bulls-eyes on the shallowness of current state school reforms and private school models as solutions.

Top-down mandates requiring students to take more courses, sit in school longer, and do more homework while requiring teachers to cover certain content deal with symbols of learning that can be converted into numbers (e.g., attendance, test scores, courses taken). But they do not address the core problem: the structures that produce intellectual mediocrity.

Also, state policies can be sabotaged if they have little support from students, teachers, and parents. Last spring, for example, Chico, California, high school seniors, angry with their principal, decided to fail a state test, thereby losing for their school thousands of dollars awarded for annual test score gains. Top-down mandates seldom produce teacher commitment or student engagement. Because visible results are politically necessary and since state policies cannot transform classrooms, the numbers game is maintained, the shopping mall rests undisturbed, and state reformers are hailed as successful.

For those who like to grasp at mist, reports of test score gains and Gallup polls showing increased public confidence in schools will help. But they should know that such numbers have as much to do with fundamental high school reform as cotton candy does with relieving famine.

Neither are private school models an easy solution for the average student. While some students benefit from the more limited course choices and the personal attention offered by many private schools, other do not. These findings contradict critics who embrace vouchers or point to features of private schools as solutions to the ills of the public schools.

I found compelling the authors' criticisms of current reforms. Less convincing were their suggestions of creating smaller schools within large ones and altering existing structures to generate a passion for learning among ordinary students. Beyond this network of specialty shops, the authors propose that how students and teachers spend their time be renegotiated to increase quality time for both students and teachers, e.g. less time spent in classes and more time spent in independent study, more individual contact with teachers, or simply more coaching sessions with small groups of students.

Unfortunately, there is likely to be little fundamental change. The deals upon which today's high schools are based were struck decades ago, and these deals between the high schools and society satisfy most consumers. Where are the incentives to restructure the high school? Can we expect high schools that mirror a confusing, pluralistic culture to create purpose where none now seems to exist? The natural and social sciences offer few coherent interpretations of our daily lives. Philosophy and theology do little better. Film and television offer glitzy splinters. Fragmentation exists not just in secondary education but also in the many universities which resemble shopping mall high schools.

Until Americans know with some degree of confidence what they want the high schools to be and do, the democratic invention of the shopping mall high school will endure.