There is a word missing from the plethora of reports from a plethora of organizations detailing how bad our educational system is. Or, to be absolutely precise about it, the word missing is not from the reports themselves but from the ensuing public discussion. The word is "them."

You may choose your synonym for "them." Depending on your own school experience, your own biases, it might be blacks or Hispanics or Indians or Puerto Ricans or just the plain old poor. Whatever the group, there is a sense that we have had it with them and we will coddle "them" no more.

The "we" in this case is the dominant white majority, which never had much trouble with the education system in the first place. The schools generally worked for us (although not always for our immigrant ancestors), and they probably seem better in retrospect than they actually were.

But if those schools were good, it was because they really were our schools. They taught our subjects in our language and imparted our values. Who could complain?

"They" could, that's who. And they did. They said the schools were not working for them. They said their kids were flunking out, being booted out, dropping out. They said the teachers taught across a gulf of ethnic, racial or just plain economic misunderstanding.

And because these groups were becoming politically powerful and because some of what they were saying made sense, the government--mostly the federal government--intervened on their side. Experts will argue if that movement, coinciding with the launching of the Great Society, was responsible for what a presidential panel called "a rising tide of educational mediocrity" or whether it was something else--lousy teachers, for instance. It seems clear, though, that most people already know whom to blame. It's "them."

To an extent, they're right. Maybe there was a way to pay attention to previously ignored minorities without either lowering standards or tracking, but no one seemed to know how to do it.

Maybe there was also a way of teaching kids who came from educationally deprived homes without slighting other kids but no one seemed to know how to do that, either. And maybe, too, some of what was tried was just plain silly. I still can't figure out what community control had to do with teaching reading and bilingual education is a concept that escapes me--in any language.

As a result of these sorts of programs, lots of people feel that they have lost control of the schools. This accounts for the growth in private school education, the push behind tuition credits and the apparent popularity of what passes for a Reagan administration education program--spend less. The end of that statement--spend less on whom?--is never really in doubt. On "them," on "them." But those programs can't possibly be blamed for what is being described as an across-the-board education debacle--especially when some of the programs might finally be paying off. Test scores are again on the rise, the disparity between black and white scores is narrowing, and teachers report a decrease in disciplinary problems. In other words, at the same time we are being told that things could hardly be worse, they are actually getting better.

Of course, the schools have a long way to go. But it would be no solution if the recent commission reports are used to provide a bogus justification for a return to a time when "they" were mostly ignored and when that vaunted goal, excellence, was like a Jim Crow drinking fountain--reserved only for certain kinds of people.

Despite the presidential commission's reference to education as yet another weapon in the American arsenal, the situation is not so stark that equality has to be sacrificed on this nonexistent battlefield. Excellence, like the MX, can be bought. And like the MX it costs money.

But the mood seems to be that we can only afford a certain amount of excellence. Money is short, we are out of patience, and the situation is said to be critical. But unless we are willing to pay for excellence, it's first victim will not be mediocrity, but "them." It's the word no one uses. But it stands for people who won't go away.