In seventh grade, David Andrew Bloom was getting A's and B's. Three years later, he was a borderline dropout.

Today, as a college freshman, Bloom, 19, is a steadfast believer in the need for Americans to rethink the fundamental nature of schooling.

"I was bored and frustrated," Bloom says of the conventional school where the trouble started. "I was being force-fed everything that everybody else thought I should know. My thought was: 'Where does this apply? How is this going to help me when I'm out in the real world?' "

Instead of dropping out, Bloom, who says he failed Spanish, geometry and study hall, "primarily on the basis that I never went," was enrolled at the Jefferson County Open School in Lakewood, Colo., a last-ditch effort to make something of his secondary-school experience.

Through this unusual public school, he studied American history at Yellowstone National Park, presidential politics here in Washington, literature in New England and the life and culture of the Navajo people while living on their reservation in Arizona.

Jefferson's radical experiential approach to learning is out of reach for many of the nation's 83,000 public schools. But it illustrates the almost unlimited possibilities when a school is freed from its shackles of the status quo.

At Jefferson, Bloom was no longer restricted to narrowly focused studies, to set periods of class work, or to the confines of the school building. He found teachers who worked with him as coaches and mentors, not simply as lecturers. His progress no longer measured by a rigid grading system, he was held accountable by how well he evaluated his learning experiences in terms of personal and intellectual growth.

"I learned to work with and through others to accomplish objectives," Bloom wrote of his trip to Santa Fe to study the history of mountain men. "I learned to communicate effectively and I learned to organize and implement complex tasks. And, especially important for me, I learned to complete what I had begun."

These skills -- the ability to find and analyze information, to pose problems and seek solutions, to persevere, to collaborate, to take responsibility for one's own learning -- are in demand as America stumbles headfirst into the complex challenges of the Information Age.

The question is how best to provide students with "lifelong learning" skills. And therein lies the heart of the education reform debate: how to restructure (some say re-create or reinvent) an obsolete system of schooling that is not producing what America increasingly needs -- citizens who can adapt to change, cope with ambiguity and, in short, think for a living.

Since 1983, when the highly publicized report "A Nation at Risk" revealed many of the failings of America's public schools, much of the reform has been regulatory in nature, with a focus on more course work, more homework, more time on task, higher salaries, more professionalism, more testing, and more sharing of power.

"The reform movement, while energetic and impressive by the tenacity of its interest, has been only marginally effective at best," says Ernest Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and consultant to CBS-TV News for "America's Toughest Assignment: Solving the Education Crisis," which airs Thursday at 9 p.m. "On the one hand," he says, "we have an attempt to impose enormously traditional and generally inappropriate strategies that conjure up past models of schooling that most people have experienced.

"On the other hand, we have some creative and bold efforts. But to me, they're excellence by exception, isolated examples of creativity that in no way represent systemic change. And there just aren't enough years in the century to deal with 83,000 schools on a piecemeal basis. That's not the way we're going to improve public education in America."

The real reform, say Boyer and others, needs to occur in the minds of educators and citizens alike, who need to rethink what a school should be.

"We're still dealing with an institutional framework that was designed to meet the needs of the child 30, 40, 50 years ago," says John A. Murphy, superintendent of schools in Prince George's County. "And the children coming through the front door of the school are entirely different in terms of socioeconomic status, their preparation for schooling, the home conditions from which they come."

With the growing number of working mothers and single-parent homes, "children are alone more, and more vulnerable," Boyer says. One could argue "that the school would have to change its climate so that it's dealing with children on a more direct, humane basis, rather than through an impersonal, factory-like model of instruction."

And that, he adds, "raises serious questions about the school calendar and clock. We're still organized around the agrarian model, which assumes children get home at 2 in the afternoon to help with chores and stay home in the summer to harvest crops. What it really means is that children spend endless hours alone, drifting, isolated, unconnected either to family or school."

As it stands now, "you can't imagine why anyone would organize something the way a high school is organized. It's so inefficient and ineffective," says Rexford Brown, director of communications for the Education Commission of the States, a nonprofit compact formed in 1965 to help governors, state legislators, state education officials and others develop policies to improve the quality of education. "Suppose that your business were organized the way a school is organized. People would have eight or nine different bosses. Every 44 minutes a bell would ring and they'd go to a different boss with different standards; they'd have to stop what they were doing and do something else. People couldn't work together because that would be called cheating. And instead of dealing with problems as they arise in the real world, they'd have to deal with them one subject at a time."

Talk of reform begs a closer look at some of education's most common rules of operation -- many of which are under fire. Chester E. Finn Jr., professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University, asks, "Do all kids learn at the same speed? Does everybody learn the same amount in 180 days? Should everybody be going from third grade to fourth grade at the same time? Why do we have grades anyway? Why do we write our compulsory attendance laws in terms of birthdays, so that you can leave school at (a certain) age, even if you haven't learned a thing?

"Why," he adds, "do we insist on treating all teachers alike, when we know perfectly well that some of them are good at it and some of them are not, that some of them are in shortage fields and some of them are in oversupplied fields, that some of them are in hardship conditions and some of them are in cushy situations? Why do we insist on treating them all alike and paying them all alike?"

After writing "Horace's Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School," Theodore R. Sizer, professor of education at Brown University and former dean of the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University, founded the Coalition of Essential Schools, a restructuring project that is in place at more than 100 schools nationwide. Among other things, participating schools challenge traditional tracking, promotion and curriculum, with emphasis on the belief that less is more.

Students at Central Park East, a Coalition high school in Manhattan, study two subjects -- humanities and science -- by answering a series of "essential questions." For example, the question, "Whose country is this, anyway?" leads to an interdisciplinary study of history, politics and labor sociology that, in sum, explores "the peopling of America." Teachers determine what is studied, how time is spent and what materials and pedagogies are used.

Students, coached by teachers who work together in teams, are responsible for their own learning, working in integrated groups of gifted and slow learners, all of whom are held to equally high expectations. Getting the answer right isn't as important as how a student arrives at it. So testing, a demonstration of mastery, can take many forms: a skit, a speech, an essay, even a rap song performance. Students earn a diploma by exhibition, not credits earned.

Generally, Coalition principles provide guidelines for change, but not hard-and-fast rules. The point, Sizer says, is not to design a model for replication, but to force a rethinking of ideas and practices that shape schooling.

Sizer likes to work from the inside out. That conflicts with other education reformists, like Chester Finn, who like to work from the outside in, by setting national education goals as a matter of public policy. "We can reinvent schools until we're blue in the face and we won't necessarily like the product any better," Finn says. "It isn't going to work in very many schools because of the nature of the circumstances you have to have in the school ... a human chemistry that is so scarce in American education."

Instead, Finn believes in setting "outcome goals" for schools, "encouraging many different approaches" to a prescribed end and holding schools accountable for results. Yet, the two approaches overlap. Sizer and Finn agree that Americans must decide what they want their children to learn from formal schooling.

Brown calls for Americans to take the home view, to think about the frustrations they confront at the store, on the street, in the workplace. "There's this feeling that kids just don't use their minds very well," he says. "It's what Ted Sizer calls 'docile minds.' "

"I don't think," Sizer says, "that most Americans have ever thought about what their kids should be able to do with their heads and hearts as a basis for high-school education. They say: 'Can the kid get into Stanford?' 'Can the kid get a diploma?' 'Can the kid get a job?' " The focus should be on: "What kind of problems can the kid solve?' "

Answering that question has been the work of Brown, who, with a $1 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation, has been studying a "literacy of thoughtfulness."

"It includes a capacity to think critically, to think creatively, to work collaboratively, to be a problem solver, a good reasoner and to communicate effectively with a variety of different audiences," he says. "It's an ability to analyze, synthesize and interpret information, to know what good information is and what bad information is ... ." And if that's the kind of literacy you want, Brown says, "then the question is: 'How do we change schools, how do we change policy, how do we change practice, so we get a far higher level of literacy from a much broader range of students than we've ever tried before?' "

Undertaking that is difficult because, Murphy and other educators say, it combines fear of the unknown with demand for quick results. "There's an inability to take people from where they are to a new level and keep them there consistently," Murphy says. This "backward slippage" makes it difficult to promote change, he adds, "because people have set feelings about what education should be and it's what it was when they went to school."

Compounding the difficulty are the subsets of the general population -- adults with no children in school who don't feel connected to, or affected by, the work of schools; and students' parents who feel no need to rock the boat, so long as they believe their children and their schools are doing okay.

"We haven't paid attention to our schools," says Ann Lynch, president of the National Parent-Teacher Association, who believes education has been left too much to the educators. "We're so busy thinking about our jobs, our careers, our houses, raising our own children, and economically staying alive, we haven't turned around to see what's happening in the first grade and high school.

"I've never seen anybody drop a baby off at the emergency ward and come back in two weeks and say, 'How's my baby doing?' But I see thousands of parents drop their children off in kindergarten and pick them up years later in high school and say, 'How'd they do?' Education is not viewed as part of a child's life. It's viewed as an adjunct, and somebody else has the responsibility for how it works."

This national mind-set has to change both inside and outside the schoolhouse, reformers say. And while policy makers, politicians and educators seek systemic reform, lighthouses of excellence are shining throughout the country, lighting the way by example. Consider the work of Ron Fortunato, a teacher in Norfolk who turned his high-school classroom into a NASA laboratory.

"When the kids come into our classroom, they're in a NASA lab," says Fortunato, whose students won a grant from the space agency to design an experiment in gravity for a future space launch. "Instead of us telling the kids what to do, we let them run it, to be responsible for it," Fortunato says. "We had a student project scientist, a student chief engineer, a student electrical systems engineer and a student management specialist. We put a student in charge of each part of the organization, and we had a NASA mentor to offer each student guidance.

"The bottom line was that we didn't tell the kids what to do," Fortunato says. "They were free to make their own decisions and to learn from their mistakes, because that's the way it works in the real world."