For the first time since Sputnik was orbited in 1957, education is a major political issue. The warning by the National Commission on Excellence in Education that the schools--and our society--are threatened by "a rising tide of mediocrity," and similar appraisals by other national study panels have made the public aware that the condition of the schools cannot be taken for granted. The question now is, can the momentum for school improvement be sustained?

All the recent reports have complained that national indicators of academic achievement and of literacy have fallen over the past 20 years, despite the vast expansion of our educational system. Educators disagree about why this is so and even whether the measures of achievement are valid, but there is no doubt that the trend has been down. Not only did average college-entrance examination scores drop steadily from 1964 until last year, but the number of high-scoring students has shrunk dramatically. Since the mid-1960s, the same downward pattern has also been recorded on standardized tests given in junior high school and senior high school.

Test scores, of course, are but a symptom of the larger problem. During the past decade, researchers have pointed to disturbing practices: lower requirements for high school graduation and college admission, which led to smaller enrollments in foreign languages and in advanced courses in mathematics and science; dissolution of the history and English curriculum, which promoted the proliferation of specialized or non-academic electives; less time spent reading, writing or doing homework, which undermined verbal skills. Student behavior in school has also changed for the worse; reports of absenteeism, vandalism and fighting by students have been widespread. During the same period, grade inflation and social promotion reflected the low value placed on academic achievement.

Although there has been a tendency to place much of the blame for these developments on the teaching profession, it seems clear that the larger trends were not caused by teachers. For the person who loves to teach poetry or history or science, the schools have not been a happy work place. Because of the poor conditions of teaching, it is little wonder that the schools have had an increasingly difficult time attracting or holding on to talented teachers.

The dire descriptions of our educational problems are no cause for negativism. In a democracy, the first step necessary for dealing with a problem is to recognize it, and this is the service performed by the national reports. At the time of Sputnik, heightened public concern about the schools led to effective action at all levels--federal, state and local. Real changes occurred as a result, such as increased enrollments in foreign languages, science, and mathematics and the development of new curricula.

Thus, the bad news about our educational needs may actually be good news because it means that we now have the political consensus to do something about improving the schools. The seriousness of our long academic slide provides fair warning that no quick fixes will do. The recent commission reports contain many sensible suggestions, and they make clear that the job of improving the schools will require thoughtful and consistent efforts by teachers, administrators, parents, state legislators and federal officials.

Yes, there is a federal role in education, and it has nothing to do with prayer or private school subsidies. The federal government must continue to be concerned about both the quality and equality of educational opportunity. The value of a strong national voice is exemplified by the admirable report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, which has already raised the level of discourse about education across the country.

Federal policies must be designed to address local needs. Federal action can help to alleviate the shortage of teachers in subject areas like foreign languages, mathematics and science by offering fellowships and loans to prospective teachers and by creating a mechanism to recognize and reward outstanding teachers. The National Science Foundation can play a constructive role by furthering contacts between high school students, teachers and the larger world of science and technology.

The recent efforts by the National Endowment for the Humanities to improve the teaching of history, literature and foreign languages in high school should be encouraged. On Chairman William Bennett's initiative the endowment is offering summer seminars for high school teachers to increase their knowledge of history and literature and has sponsored collaborative activities for teachers of the humanities in high schools and colleges. In addition, the endowment's interest in the high schools has prompted many state humanities councils to involve teachers and students in their programs.

Instead of cutting the bilingual education budget, Congress should turn the program into a national literacy campaign with an even larger budget. The federal government should state clearly, as the 20th Century Fund task force on federal policy recently recommended, that "the most important objective of elementary and secondary education in the United States is the development of literacy in the English language." The task force (on which I served) proposed that the federal government establish the goal--literacy in the English language for every child--and that each district be free to decide which methods (including bilingual education) are most appropriate.

A wise federal policy would include expanded funding of educational research and information, in order to keep policy-makers, educators and citizens well informed..The National Center for Education Statistics, already an invaluable barometer of education trends, should have the capacity to keep tabs on the performance of students, teachers, and schools across the nation. With better information, we are less likely to be surprised by educational crises in the future.

The federal government should also grant financial assistance to school districts that are overwhelmed by an influx of immigrant children. The well-funded "impact aid" program, intended originally to subsidize districts with large numbers of military personnel, could be redirected for this purpose.

Properly conceived, the federal role is to inspire, prod, and assist localities to improve the quality of education available to all children. But even under ideal circumstances, the federal role can be only subsidiary to local and state efforts. Educational change that is more than cosmetic will require the cooperation of many different actors. Public education continues to be primarily a state responsibility, and the day-to- day functioning of schools depends on the attitudes and actions of teachers, administrators, school board members and parents.

To improve student achievement, teachers will have to assign more homework, expect students to do more reading and writing, and spend more time correcting essays. Parents will have to see that their children spend more time on homework and less time on entertainment. Colleges should raise their admissions requirements, which would immediately affect high school curricula. Schools should strengthen the basic curriculum for all students so that everyone studies history, literature, science, mathematics, the arts and foreign language. Those who are going to college need a stronger background; those who are not going to college may not have another opportunity to learn what is taught in school.

For everyone involved, the critical factor that must change is the attitude toward the importance of good education. Technological changes demand higher standards of literacy for the entire population. Schools are not simply a custodial institution designed to keep young people off the streets and out of the labor market. They are vital in developing the abilities and intelligence of young people. Our future well- being as a society depends in large measure on the capacity of our schools to nurture productive, thoughtful, and adaptive young men and women.

The impetus for school improvement that followed Sputnik lasted only seven or eight years before other social crises captured the attention of the public and the education profession. It fell victim, too, because its stress on the needs of the gifted conflicted with a rising tide of egalitarianism. School reformers today plead not for the needs of the few but for the right of all American children to a better education. If it is true that public education has the chance only once in a generation to gain enough national attention to produce substantial change, then the time is now.