"For the first time in the history of our country, the educational skills of one generation will not surpass, will not equal, will not even approach those of their parents." -- Analyst Paul Copperman in the National Commission on Excellence in Education's "Open Letter to the American People"

The big question voiced by parents and tackled by educators used to be "Why Can't Johnny Read?" Today, increasing numbers of America's parents and teachers are changing their focus: "Johnny can . . . but he won't."

There's a name for the malady: underachieving, now seen by educators and other professionals as a widespread and growing problem, or possibly one that -- in today's more achievement-oriented climate -- is getting more attention.

Experts cite a number of reasons for the emergence of underachievement, among them: two-career couples' difficulties in juggling work and parental roles, the turmoil of divorce and remarriage, children's increased perception of self-sufficiency and independence from their parents and their acquiring of information from a variety of outside sources, with the school no longer, necessarily, the primary source of education.

Whatever the reasons -- and opinions vary -- underachievement is becoming the education catchword of the '80s.

The standard definition for its victims, says child psychologist Robert McCall, 44, "is youngsters whose school performance falls below the performance levels indicated in standardized aptitude tests, to one degree or another.

"Psychologically," says McCall, a senior scientist at Father Flanagan's Boys Town, "it boils down to whether schools and parents feel frustrated by the performance of their students whom they perceive as not performing up to their capability." (Half the children in the United States perform below average, and half perform above it, he points out. "That is the definition of average.")

Underachieving students exist in this country, says Lynn O'Brien, "in epidemic proportions." O'Brien, director of Specific Diagnostics in Rockville, founded her company in 1973 to deal with learning-disabled children. Now, she says, a large percentage of her clients are underachieving students. "We're going to see a lot more of them."

Dealing with underachievers is becoming big business, with an increasing number of parents willing to pay for help in getting their children motivated.

More and more professionals are focusing on the phenomenon and at least one organization, the Institute for Motivational Development (IMD), deals almost exclusively with "the assessment and treatment of underachievement in young people." Founded in the Chicago area in 1970 by psychologist Linnus S. Pecaut, IMD has grown into a corporation with offices in 12 major metropolitan areas (including Washington) across the country.

"There are more than 100 professionals in our group right now," says Pecaut, "Ph.D.'s in psychology primarily, with some in education. We see over 3,000 kids a week."

Pecaut defines an underachiever (and other experts in the field do not disagree) as "a bright kid, a good kid. We're not talking about severely disturbed or sociopathic kids. They're kids that lack three old-fashioned values:

* Persistence to completion. "This relates not only to school work but to other things as well, Boy Scouts, athletics, whatever."

* Meeting deadlines. "Once he transgresses deadlines, he forces us to make decisions about his life. If I give him an F, he has more fodder. He's really going to nail me. If I give him an extension, he's never going to deliver."

* Independent functioning. "If you sit on them, they produce excellently. When you quit, they quit. We know kids who get 'A' work under parental supervision and forget to hand it in on time."

In the normal course of development, as a child succeeds, he moves away from the family toward the outside community. "The key job any child has," says Pecaut, "is to establish himself in the second community -- the school."

Underachievers falter: "They're really telling us they feel nervous about it." When they feel nervous, they foul something up, inviting the parent to intervene and provide structure. "Then they say, 'If you'd get off my back, I'd do better." The parent backs off and the child does worse.

The most typical underachiever pattern involves the child who does well up to the fourth grade. The teachers closely supervise their work for the first three years and much of their "homework" is done in class. In the fourth grade considerably more independent homework is assigned.

"A classic underachiever," says Pecaut, "will miss one of the pieces. He may bring the book home but it's the wrong book. Or he remembers the assignment and does it, but he forgets to hand it in. He's telling the parent 'I'm having a difficult time establishing myself outside the home and I need to elicit strict supervision because of my anxiety dealing with it."

As parents and teachers try to deal with it, they often make the problem worse. "Underachievers," asserts Pecaut, "are like stuck doors: The more you pull on them, the more they stick."

The two usual tactics employed by parents: logic -- "If you did it right the first time, we'd get off your back" -- and power -- "If you don't do the work right, we'll cut off your TV rights."

Both moves, says Pecaut, are ineffective. "All restrictive measures feed into the problem. They may work for a while, but once you quit, they'll go right back. I tell parents, 'If you want a reaction, you don't ground them. You lock the doors when they're out and they can't get back in.' "

Because Pecaut believes that underachievement is more a result of personality variables [see box] than of failure to meet academic demands, he and colleagues focus on resolving psychological blocks.

After an initial (free) interview with parents, IMD psychologists usually give the child a battery of diagnostic tests [$450], followed by weekly sessions with the child ($75 per session) and twice-monthly sessions with the parents (also $75 each). Treatment lasts "an average 10-18 months." Health insurance may cover up to about half the cost.

O'Brien and her associates at Specific Diagnostics take a different, more task-oriented tack. Take "Robert," a typical (composite) client. "He's a student in the 9th grade and is having a lot of difficulty in history and science. He's been a good student until this year, and he and his parents can't understand why he's having trouble now."

Robert takes an unusually long time to do his homework. The only thing keeping him from failing is class participation. He's failing his tests, wasting time, sitting around the house, watching TV.

Robert's parents argue about him constantly. His father doesn't think it's any big deal because he was like that when he was younger. His mother is ready to throw up her hands. Finally, the school counselor may refer her to Specific Diagnostics.

"The parents come in and I listen to them describe the situation," says O'Brien. "I get some input from the school or the parents may fill me in."

Nine out of 10 students, says O'Brien, do not need a full battery of tests [also $450]. "Today's kids are pretty sophisticated in some ways. They know very well something's wrong. They've seen their report card. They hear their parents grating at them."

Instead, she or an associate typically sees the student "for an informal assessment [$80]." In that hour, says O'Brien, "I'm going to do as much testing and talking as I can to get a line on what we can do to help. The student's full-time job is school. He's failing that and it's permeating the way he feels about himself . . . "I, as a professional, can make all kinds of deductions about their behavior, their hesitancies, their impulsivity, their carelessness.

"Most of the Roberts," says O'Brien, "don't have a sense of how smart they are. Quite the opposite. A lot of them, mistakenly, think they're dumb.

"I tell them 'I've looked at your reasoning, your memory. You have the abilities to be doing this work. I'd like to assign you to one of my teachers, hold your hand for the next few months, until we have a passing grade of C. Let's make a deal and shake on it. Let's do it for two months -- one time a week for two months [$33 per one-hour session].' "

All the educators on O'Brien's staff have masters or Ph.D. degrees in their various fields "because we do so much on content subjects. We're getting the secondary students who're failing because of underachievement."

The average counseling program, says O'Brien, lasts 6-8 months. If the child has some degree of learning disability, health insurance may cover treatment.

"It's unrealistic to think you can straighten out the child without the help of the parents," says psychologist Herbert Zimiles, a senior social scientist with New York's Bank Street College of Education, among educators stressing the importance of parents' participation.

"The parents are the ones the child is with most of the day. It's true that parents today are more confused about what their role is. I think parents are distracted and more confused about how they should function and that complicates matters."

Says Boys Town's McCall, "Very often as the underachiever is studied, it lays a bad trip on the parents and they look like they've been irresponsible and that they caused it. Sometimes they have. Sometimes they have been disinterested, or they've been neglectful in a variety of ways.

"But it's also possible to have one of these kids when you've worked as hard and as sincerely and in as caring a manner as you know how to do, and it's not your fault in the sense that you were neglectful or weren't a responsible parent."

In other words, he says, parents are not necessarily at fault. "Very often everybody else in the family is hunky-dory, except this particular child."