AFTER ALL THOSE years of professors' complaints about American high schools, the presidents of several dozen colleges and universities now pledge to work actively to strengthen the schools. It's not that the schools have failed, they argue, but that the country has suddenly realized that it needs much more from them than ever before. It's not good enough to produce an elegantly educated elite to manage a large work force with only basic skills. Many millions of people around the world now possess those same skills and are willing to work for far less than American wages. Either the schools produce workers who, as these college and university presidents put it, "can think for a living" or the country will find itself living much less well than in the past. So far, under the leadership of Donald Kennedy of Stanford, 37 institutions have joined this venture in support of reform.

They are talking about expanding the direct collaboration between colleges and high schools. They are also talking about a hard look at the quality of teacher training in their own institutions. The country clearly needs more of its best students to become teachers, and as these 37 presidents acknowledge, that won't happen as long as the universities themselves allow the teacher training programs to be sinks of mediocrity.

School systems in general have a long way to go before they can say that they offer working conditions equal to the other professions'. But the schools are improving as employers, and some now offer top salaries higher than the average for professors -- as they should. Teaching younger students, who are compelled by law to be in the classroom, is far more arduous work than most college professors face.

But the 37 college and university presidents are proposing a change in other kinds of values as well. To put it more bluntly than they do, the established snobberies of academic life are serving neither the colleges nor the high schools well. They have drawn too many people into college teaching, where they fight desperately for tenure and often are forced out in their mid-thirties, while too few people of that same capacity go into the lower schools where the social worth of the job is arguably greater.

The universities, with honorable and conspicuous exceptions, have kept their distance from the high schools and high school teaching over the past couple of decades. They have used their immense prestige for other purposes. Now these influential volunteers from academia are going to try to change that, to the benefit of the great work now under way of renewing and elevating American public education.