Athelia Knight's series on McKinley High School {front page, Sept. 13-16} was excellent and opens a dialogue that is very much needed. After 10 years of teaching at the college level, I am now beginning my second year as a secondary school teacher. Never in the history of American public education has there been such a pernicious attitude among some -- though not all -- young people toward their education.

Recently I reprimanded a student who called a classmate a "nerd" because he knew an answer to a question I had posed. I was outraged by what was essentially an attempt to ostracize from the all-important peer culture a young man whose only crime was responding appropriately to a teacher.

The problem, however, is not simply educational. Neither pedagogical nor administrative strategies alone can have an impact on an environment that fosters mediocrity. The problem is rooted in a number of developments of the 20th century: urbanization, industrialization, the "schooling" of an unprecedented number of young people for an equally unprecedented number of years. In some instances, poverty is an attendant complication.

The environment of mediocrity is one of impoverished ideals and values, which cripple the minds and hearts of human beings. Yet, enriching the ideals and values of young people is not simply a matter of reciting the pledge to the flag (though that is not to be discouraged). Educators and parents must recognize that whenever a group of people is brought together for a long enough period of time, a framework of shared values among that group will be generated. This, of course, happens at every school. Sometimes more than one framework of values is generated, thereby defining cliques (e.g., jocks, nerds, drug users).

What is clear is that there is very little concerted leadership from parents, administrators and teachers to shape positive, desirable, humane values and attitudes. What is needed (dare I say it?) is a framework of secular spiritual values -- values that can be nurtured and reinforced in both the home and the public school.

Unfortunately, many obstacles impede the formulation as well as the implementation of such a framework of values. The reasons are legendary, rooted in the "education vs. religion" debate and the attempt on the part of schools to please everyone and offend no one. The end result, however, is a student body that develops its own values, quite independently of parents and teachers. We are finally being confronted with the reality that the values many young people are left to develop on their own are neither democratic nor humane.

RONALD L. ZIGLER

Washington

Readers of Athelia Knight's first article on McKinley High School might have thought they were reading about problems peculiar to inner-city schools or, worse, to black students. They would be quite wrong if they made such an assumption. I have taught in our city's high schools; I have also taught in an ''average,'' mainly white private high school in one of the area's most affluent suburbs.

I discovered that private school students come to their classes without textbooks, paper or pens; that they come to class late, with homework sloppily done or not done at all; and that they talk in class, write obscenities on test papers and hang out of classroom windows to shout at their friends. I also discovered that bright private school students carefully pare down their achievements to avoid being ostracized by their friends.

I see only one difference between the high school described in Athelia Knight's article and that private school: an average private school has the special problem of risking the loss of students if it holds them to a high standard; at McKinley, the principal and teachers have the freedom to be shocked by irresponsible behavior and shoddy work. At McKinley, principal Bettye Topps and teacher Anne Harding insist on something better. This is vision and courage of the toughest kind. Let's give our city's educators the credit and gratitude they have earned.

JUDITH GUTTMAN

Washington