Phase II of education reform is here: critics of schools criticizing other critics. Phase I began a few years back when task forces informed parents of what parents had been trying to tell task forces for years -- that the schools weren't delivering.
The second phase commenced last week when Education Secretary William Bennett flunked the Democratic candidates, who had gathered for a North Carolina debate on education: ''It was obvious that none of them are (sic) really qualified to be president.'' Two of the Democrats, with their grammar in finer fettle, had said Bennett wasn't qualified to be education secretary.
This equaled a food fight in the high school cafeteria: predictable and, for a sophomoric moment, fun. On another front, the brawling was more intellectual, like a battle of insulting memos between college deans across the quad. One federally financed report ($370,000) on high schools intoned that ''something is gravely awry'' because ''our 11th graders as a whole are ignorant of much that they should know'' about history and literature. Its authors accused another author, Lynne Cheney, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, of borrowing their research without attribution and before publication. A news story revealed that Cheney, whose similar study was titled ''American Memory,'' found it ''bizarre and absurd'' that the authors of the other report were offended.
While adults fight, the young are off to another school year with all the expected and dispiriting prospects of providing experts with material for more baleful reports.
One reason that education reform leads to those documents is that public schools, along with a large number of private ones, can be institutionally rigid. A teacher -- underpaid and overworked but still hopeful that his efforts count -- explained it to me: through pressure, indoctrination and habit, children, beginning in the earliest grades, are in class to please the teacher. The teacher, also pressured, indoctrinated and habituated, is there to please the administrators. The administrators please the school board, which wants to please the politicians, who want to please the voters.
Everyone has a cut of power except the students. When some of them fail to learn, a commission is ready to announce that ''something is gravely awry.'' The well-financed reports are a way of throwing problems at money.
What's awry, at the core, is a distrust of students. In the past few years, I've visited more than 25 colleges, high schools and grammar schools, as well as having about 1,000 students in my own university classes. No student has yet to answer ''yes'' when I raised the fundamental question of his or her educational life: On the first day of school in September did anyone in authority ask what you wanted to study the coming year? It's always "no." Their judgment isn't honored. Requirements are the rule, not exploration.
Not to ask the young what they want to study is like going to a restaurant and being told that the waiters and cooks have decided what's best for you to eat. Forced feeding is about as beneficial to the body as forced learning is for the mind.
Student empowerment is not a goal likely to be called for by any of the candidates. In North Carolina, the talk was of merit pay, tuition tax credits, loan programs and other undaring sundries. Without doubt, consulting students on such issues as curricula or class size -- do adults think kids enjoy 25 or 30 people in the same room with only one teacher? -- would lead to uneven results. But the gain of giving students at least a small say in their education would balance whatever is lost.
If consulted, some students are likely to have other burdens. In North Carolina, where the seven Democrats were joined by two Republicans, one in four children lives in poverty. The North Carolina Child Advocacy Institute reports that 37,000 poor children have been cut from the school breakfast-and-lunch program during the Reagan years. If these children were asked what they wanted to learn, they would repeat in their own words Thomas Aquinas' line, food first, then truth.
Children who are bored in school, or are clock watchers waiting for the bell to free them from house arrest, may not be up on the Magna Carta or the journeys of Odysseus, but they could earn straight A's on their knowledge of how school establishments control or silence them.
I have been in schools where students are included in academic decisions. These aren't asylums being run by the inmates, which is the usual description of proposals for including students in academic decisions. They're merely schools where openness is welcomed and innovation trusted. The fear of not pleasing the teacher is replaced with the right of learners pleasing themselves.
Without that, reforms aren't likely