A FRIEND CALLED yesterday. She's back in the country for a visit after nearly two years abroad, thinking of coming home for good now. Her son and my son are classmates, and so she asked about the schools -- were they better, were they worse. Had she called later in the day, I could have told her: They're worse. Vincent E. Reed has quit.

I'll let others talk to the experts about Reed's tenure as superintendent of the Washington public schools. There are people who are able to evaluate his performance, tell you whether he was good or bad at his job and whether the things he talked about were actually implemented in the schools. I can only talk as a parent. The resignation is a disaster.

The test scores were up. They are not the sort of test scores to boast about, but they are not as bad as they once were. That's good. That's something Reed has done. The schools seem to have goals. That's good. That's something Reed has done. Under Reed, a student actually has to learn something before he or she is promoted. That's good. That's something Reed has done.

Reed talked about competency. Reed went around the community and didn't alienate one group or another. Reed talked as if the schools were for all the people all the time and he even plugged for an academic high school in which kids would be admitted on the basis of achievement. Naturally, he got his brains beat in on that one.

Reed gave the school system some stability. When he was appointed, he was the eighth superintendent in 12 years. The system was rocky. It was demoralized. People had come from all over the country to play with the Washington school system. They tried this and they tried that and they had fancy names for what they were doing. A simple name was always applied to the results -- failure. The people went their way.

Vincent Reed became superintendent after years of white flight from the D.C. public schools. He came to the system when it was nothing but wreckage after years of racial haggling. He ended a lot of that. He came to the system when middle-class blacks were leaving it, too, and he tried, little by little, to reestablish some confidence in the schools. He had a long way to go, but he was heading there. I can tell you what Reed has done, but I cannot tell you what the school board has done except encourage Reed to quit. I can give you the bad stuff, of course. I can tell you they squabble among themselves all the time. I can tell you they have one member who thinks he was elected to represent Third World countries and to increase the profit of the C&P Telephone Co. I can tell you that there are other members who call each other racists, and still others who consider it racist to establish a high school where students would be admitted on the basis of achievement. I cannot tell you anything good they've done.

All of it would be some sort of a joke if it were not for the fact that we are talking about schools -- the backbone of the community. When the schools die, the community dies and these schools already are too close to death. What will be left is two systems, one public for the poor and the trapped and the indifferent, the other private, for those who are concerned about education and can afford their concern.

But even that is so much high-faluting theory, an almost theoretical concern for the future of this city. What concerns me at the moment is much more basic than that -- the education of my son. There is no way in the world that I think it will be improved be the resignation of Reed. In fact, I feel certain that things will get worse, that the school board will not be able to agree on a successor and that the school system, like some crippled ship, will float rudderless and leaderless for quite some time.

That may be okay for some people. That may be okay for the school board, but it's not okay with me. My son doesn't have "quite some time." He has tomorrow and the day after and the day after that.Take those days away from him and you can never give them back. He's a kid and he's in school and he is there to learn. There are thousands like him and this is what the school board seems to forget when it picks its pretty fights and drives out of office the only school superintendent in the last 10 years who was any good. They ought to think.

They ought to think of the kids.