True conservatives conserve. Fakes stop at the con, as in conning the public. Among the preeminent practitioners of the latter craft, Secretary of Education William Bennett keeps his ranking with a 47-page document that pretends to offer new thinking on high-school education. ''James Madison High School: A Curriculum For American Students'' is, in Bennett's word, ''a statement of my considered judgment on an important subject, an attempt to deal with a question I am often asked: How would you do it? What would you teach?"

A promise of innovation, and perhaps a dash of creativity, is never kept. The curriculum Bennett offers is almost identical to the one offered in the mid-1950s at my public high school. I doubt it's much different from that in the private high school Bennett attended. It is similar to the curriculum at the public high schools my three sons attended or are attending. It is like the courses at a high school in which I taught five years ago and in the one I expect to teach in this coming semester.

At these schools, as at Bennett's hypothetical James Madison, the curricula are four years of English, three of social studies, math and science, two of foreign language and physical education, one half-year each of art and music history and electives.

If I were reading Bennett's proposal as a college term paper, the leaden prose and conventional thinking would lead me to one conclusion: the student either lifted it from a frat-house file of old term papers or bought it from one of the companies that sell papers to students too lazy or confused to write anything fresh themselves.

Most American high schools, from the $7,000-a-year private institutions to the large urban factories, have a common set of problems, none of which is solved by pronouncements about a dream curriculum. The list of problems could begin with these:

1) Too many teachers are information dispensers, and not enough administrators support teachers who are the opposite -- thought inspirers.

2) A daily schedule of six or seven class periods creates a frenzy of bells, dashes through corridors and overscheduled teachers.

3) The promotion of indoctrinational learning coerces students into accepting without question the slogans of nationalism and the agendas of the military, business and media.

4) The false message from remote experts like Bennett is that academic improvements are possible without money to buy them.

5) An enshrinement of SATs has occurred, which means that the achievers who score well may have been processed more than educated.

6) Fretting reformers proliferate who trace the decline of the U.S. economy to Japanese kids being smarter in math and science than Americans. Next it will be their sumo wrestlers being tougher than Hulk Hogan.

7) Community-service programs that are emphasized as strongly as English and science courses, and are needed more than either for character growth, are rare.

8) There is a refusal to understand that a child can't come from a family that has limited or no access to jobs, health or nutritional programs and be expected to savor the nuances of the Bard or the parallelogram.

None of these problems is addressed by Bennett. His cherished word is ''require.'' Make them learn, make them conform, make them scared. Bennett wants fewer electives. Give kids too many choices and next they'll think schools are for them.

In ''Tales Out of School,'' one of the most trenchant education books of the 1980s, Patrick Welsh, an Alexandria high school English teacher, writes: ''Politically, it is not easy to argue against the kind of changes that are being imposed on us from on high. Teachers who find fault are open to the criticism that they're stuck in a rut or afraid of 'higher standards.' And it's easy for parents and voters to be taken in by 'experts' who are pushing 'excellence,' 'higher test scores' and 'teacher accountability'. . . . Often insecure about the quality of their own parenting, {and} frequently worried about their children, they can easily latch onto the banner of tougher standards as a hope for restoring order and control in a troubled time. But I believe that in their hearts they know that education is more complicated and that, if offered an alternative, they would support it.''

Bennett's belaboring of the obvious is not that alternative.