SINCE THE Commission on Excellence sighted the "rising tide of mediocrity," we have been engulfed by a rising tide of mediocre books on education.

This is not another one.

Bill Honig, the California state superintendent of public instruction, has written a solid, optimistic book saddled with a depressingly melodramatic title. Forget the title. The book is worth reading.

California elects its state superintendent, and Honig won the job in 1983. His book outlines the sorry state of California's educational system before he took office. "The Scholastic Aptitude Test verbal scores of college-bound seniors dropped by an average of 19 points nationwide in the seventies, but in California they plummeted by 27." "The California system had become a virtual caricature of the nation's schools in its lack of purpose, discipline, and standards."

Having diagnosed the problem, Honig prescribes the cure. Happily "Doctor" Honig eschews jargon and unreadable instructions. His treatment makes sense, it won't kill the patient, and it doesn't require massive cash transfusions.

Honig endorses the heavy fiber diet of a traditional education. He defines traditional as "a rigorous curriculum in the academic disciplines -- the humanities, natural sciences, and mathematics." His dosage includes foreign language, fine arts, and health and physical education. Teachers give homework every night, and classrooms are orderly and purposeful places. Honig claims that such a traditional education gives all students the best start in life, because it teaches them to think and provides a necessary information base.

The author gets a second opinion in the research of Jeanne Chall, a Harvard professor of education. Chall's studies show that schools succeed for the most part in the early stages but fall down in the upper elementary grades when reading becomes the means of acquiring new information. "In nationwide tests of reading, writing, and vocabulary, low-income and minority students score just as well as middle-class children in the first, second, and third grades. In fourth grade, however, their scores begin to slip; by sixth grade a considerable gap separates them and continues to widen through high school." (For years I have looked at bar graphs and wondered why they ran downhill after fourth grade.)

Honig answers the sloping scores question by suggesting that the upper elementary grades' curriculum should shift from a narrow skill-based curriculum to the study of literature, science, and history to excite students. "Children need informative reading material to sustain their interest, but we have beengiving them textbooks gutted of all substance."

Honig sees his traditional curriculum as a cure for the whole series of "at-risk" kids -- inner city, rural, low-income, ethnic, or those from single-parent households. He dismisses warnings that such a curriculum is not relevant and will bore street smart youths to tears. "The student polls indicate they're being bored to tears all right -- by an education system whose every move is pitched to an academic lowest common denominator."

The author contends that teachers, parents, and counselors give upper middle-class children an advantage by expecting them to learn, do homework, and sign up for demanding courses. "But no one pushed our inner city youth or, for that matter, the bulk of middle-class children in quite the same way." Too often these children become silent partners in "The Deal." "Under the tacit rules of 'The Deal,' students agree to come to class and not make any trouble, and the teacher agrees not to burden them with any expectations more demanding than staying awake."

UNLIKE many others of the genre, Last Chance doesn't place a pox on the whole house of education.

Honig acknowledges the "tens of thousands of hard-working, dedicated teachers keeping the faith of our inner city schools." He states emphatically that minority parents want a challenging course of studies for their kids, and that educators will have to fight off false charges of racism before this morally sensitive issue is finally put to rest.

No charlatan offering nostrums for educational ills, Honig understands that turning around this nation's schools depends on the good will and cooperation of many individuals. "If the various interest groups and lobbies decide to find fault and assign blame in every phase of the undertaking but their own, nothing will change." Assuming his share, Honig has set up an accountability program with eight state-wide targets to measure children's progress at every ability level. Among the targets are: cutting the dropout rate by 20 percent, increasing the number of students taking physics by 40,000, and assuring that half the seniors -- he doesn't say which half -- do at least two hours of homework each night, all to be accomplished by the year 1990.

Such targets serve as pulse points, and California's voters and the nation's educators will track the patient's chart even closer than Bill Honig does. We should. I believe that Honig has discovered a remedy for mediocrity, education's version of the common cold.

Lou Cook, a former teacher, has been a member of the Alexandria School Board for nine years. She is currently serving her third term as chairman. California Make the Case for Basic Education LAST CHANCE FOR OUR CHILDREN: How You Can Help Save Our Schools By Bill Honig Addison-Wesley. 230 pp. $12.95 By Lou Cook

SINCE THE Commission on Excellence sighted the "rising tide of mediocrity," we have been engulfed by a rising tide of mediocre books on education.

This is not another one.

Bill Honig, the California state superintendent of public instruction, has written a solid, optimistic book saddled with a depressingly melodramatic title. Forget the title. The book is worth reading.

California elects its state superintendent, and Honig won the job in 1983. His book outlines the sorry state of California's educational system before he took office. "The Scholastic Aptitude Test verbal scores of college-bound seniors dropped by an average of 19 points nationwide in the seventies, but in California they plummeted by 27." "The California system had become a virtual caricature of the nation's schools in its lack of purpose, discipline, and standards."

Having diagnosed the problem, Honig prescribes the cure. Happily "Doctor" Honig eschews jargon and unreadable instructions. His treatment makes sense, it won't kill the patient, and it doesn't require massive cash transfusions.

Honig endorses the heavy fiber diet of a traditional education. He defines traditional as "a rigorous curriculum in the academic disciplines -- the humanities, natural sciences, and mathematics." His dosage includes foreign language, fine arts, and health and physical education. Teachers give homework every night, and classrooms are orderly and purposeful places. Honig claims that such a traditional education gives all students the best start in life, because it teaches them to think and provides a necessary information base.

The author gets a second opinion in the research of Jeanne Chall, a Harvard professor of education. Chall's studies show that schools succeed for the most part in the early stages but fall down in the upper elementary grades when reading becomes the means of acquiring new information. "In nationwide tests of reading, writing, and vocabulary, low-income and minority students score just as well as middle-class children in the first, second, and third grades. In fourth grade, however, their scores begin to slip; by sixth grade a considerable gap separates them and continues to widen through high school." (For years I have looked at bar graphs and wondered why they ran downhill after fourth grade.)

Honig answers the sloping scores question by suggesting that the upper elementary grades' curriculum should shift from a narrow skill-based curriculum to the study of literature, science, and history to excite students. "Children need informative reading material to sustain their interest, but we have beengiving them textbooks gutted of all substance."

Honig sees his traditional curriculum as a cure for the whole series of "at-risk" kids -- inner city, rural, low-income, ethnic, or those from single-parent households. He dismisses warnings that such a curriculum is not relevant and will bore street smart youths to tears. "The student polls indicate they're being bored to tears all right -- by an education system whose every move is pitched to an academic lowest common denominator."

The author contends that teachers, parents, and counselors give upper middle-class children an advantage by expecting them to learn, do homework, and sign up for demanding courses. "But no one pushed our inner city youth or, for that matter, the bulk of middle-class children in quite the same way." Too often these children become silent partners in "The Deal." "Under the tacit rules of 'The Deal,' students agree to come to class and not make any trouble, and the teacher agrees not to burden them with any expectations more demanding than staying awake."

UNLIKE many others of the genre, Last Chance doesn't place a pox on the whole house of education.

Honig acknowledges the "tens of thousands of hard-working, dedicated teachers keeping the faith of our inner city schools." He states emphatically that minority parents want a challenging course of studies for their kids, and that educators will have to fight off false charges of racism before this morally sensitive issue is finally put to rest.

No charlatan offering nostrums for educational ills, Honig understands that turning around this nation's schools depends on the good will and cooperation of many individuals. "If the various interest groups and lobbies decide to find fault and assign blame in every phase of the undertaking but their own, nothing will change." Assuming his share, Honig has set up an accountability program with eight state-wide targets to measure children's progress at every ability level. Among the targets are: cutting the dropout rate by 20 percent, increasing the number of students taking physics by 40,000, and assuring that half the seniors -- he doesn't say which half -- do at least two hours of homework each night, all to be accomplished by the year 1990.

Such targets serve as pulse points, and California's voters and the nation's educators will track the patient's chart even closer than Bill Honig does. We should. I believe that Honig has discovered a remedy for mediocrity, education's version of the common cold.