The recent arrest of several D.C. public school students on charges of selling PCP to their classmates adds to the mounting evidence that our schools are in serious trouble. Before the drug busts, there was concern about an increase in firearms in the schools and, before that, concern about race-related schoolyard brawls.

These criminal acts, which are occurring in schools around the metropolitan area, are symptomatic. And beyond the immediate solution of calling in undercover agents to get rid of the perpetrators, not much is being done to address the more fundamental problem.

The widely held philosophy that school, particularly high school, is automatic preparation for later life is no longer valid, except perhaps for the PCP dealer who sold enough drugs to his classmates last year to pay cash for a new BMW.

For many students, school has become just a period for marking time, pretending that gradations of learning will one day lead them to a productive future. At the same time, a double-digit teen-age unemployment rate says that it just ain't so.

Part of the problem, some say, is the time in which we live.

"Technology and urbanization have significantly changed 20th century America, and one of the more dramatic changes has been in the role of youth," says Jack Hruska, professor of education at the University of Massachusetts. "Society no longer needs them. Their productive energies have been replaced in the home by processed food and natural gas; in the labor market by machines, computers and adults."

Hruska adds that as adolescents move toward physical and intellectual maturity, they have intense needs for meaningful work and social activities.

Yet during this 13-to-19-year-old period they are confined to the role of student, which is essentially no more than preparation for taking an active part in society at some future time.

Frustrated, hopeless and filled with silent despair, the students strike out with drugs, violence and truancy.

While these are cultural problems that are reflected in the workplace and the home as much as the school, the school is in a unique position to make dramatic changes in the behavior of our youth.

Instead of attempting to prepare students for a "job," Hruska suggests, schools should prepare students for "work," a broader term that requires the exercise of insight, intelligence, judgment and style.

Instead of routinely dull courses in reading, writing and arithmetic, more emphasis should be placed on management, the use of time and finances. Students should be provided with the opportunities to interact with people of different ages, races and cultures and to participate in group activities directed toward collective goals -- such as having their own television station or newspaper, not just a football team.

Hruska's recommendations are based on the belief that the "problem" of adolescence and young adulthood derives from the youths' lack of social and economic usefulness, not from any lack of knowledge about subjects taught in school.

By involving them in new and challenging projects, including travel and "sabbaticals" to study what they are interested in, the schools encourage youths to discover themselves.

In his book "The Vanishing Adolescent," sociologist Edgar Friedenberg notes, "Respect for competence in oneself and others is crucial in adolescence, for it is crucial to self-definition. In a world as empirical as ours, a youngster who does not know what he is good at will not be sure what he is good for; he must know what he can do in order to know who he is."

Thus, it appears that a void has been created by this ignorance of self and a lack of self-worth that is rapidly being filled by drugs and violence.

Given the resources of our community, and the power and influence that schools should have on the lives of young people, there is no reason why we cannot compete with the "high" provided by drug use or the physical stimulation of