BOSTON -- What follows is a tale of three high schools. Eastside High. Hazelwood High. James Madison High.
The first of these, Eastside High in Paterson, N.J., is run by a principal named Joe Clark. In case you have missed Clark on television, he's the man who patrols his hallways like a military ruler of an unruly country, armed with bullhorn and baseball bat.
The second, Hazelwood High in Missouri, is run by Robert Reynolds. This man has used a more delicate instrument to exercise his authority: a blue pencil and scissors to snip real life from student news.
The third, James Madison, is wholly fictional. It springs from the imagination of Bill Bennett, the secretary of education, who created it as a showcase for an ideal curriculum.
At first glance, the three high schools seem unconnected. But in some subtle way, they are current variations on the same theme. They suggest the return to control, the stiffening of authority in the schools, the growing popularity of law-and-order education.
The Eastside success story is in some ways the ripest. Joe Clark's school (and make no mistake, it is his school) was more a haven for drugs and violence than for education when he took over. It was a prototype, the worst-case scenario of inner-city anarchy and neglect crying for a savior.
In his first year, Clark kicked out 300 of his 3,000 students. Last week, threatened by the school board for expelling 60 more, he filled an auditorium with his fervent supporters: Eastside students and parents.
Hazelwood High is a less tumultuous place, but not without its problems. Teen-age pregnancy, for example. And the aftermath of divorce. When the school paper tried to publish stories about these issues, the young journalists were censored by the principal.
Last week, the Supreme Court supported the school. It gave the principal, indeed any principal, the right to censor anything. In the words of Justice Byron White: ''A school need not tolerate student speech that is inconsistent with its 'basic educational mission.' ''
James Madison High School is happily unencumbered by any students at all. Yet the curriculum that Bennett wrote for this school is also about toughening schools from the top down. Bennett describes the course of study this way: ''Our children should know about continental shift and quadratic equations, about Gothic architecture and the Gettysburg Address, about what a symphony is and about who Shakespeare was and what he wrote.'' James Madison isn't a cafeteria high school where students pick and choose courses. It offers something more like a sit-down meal where students are expected to swallow what they are served.
What are we to make of the tale of three high schools? As a parent I have one set of feelings. I cheer the sheriff who cleaned up Eastside High and made it safe. I empathize with the Hazelwood principal who wants power over the messages going to the young, at least under his own roof. I would sign up my children for meaty fare at James Madison High School.
But as a citizen, I wonder about how easily we settle for control. How quickly we retreat to authoritarian habits.
The educational hero of the hour, Joe Clark, is also an autocrat who raises test scores by expelling the low scorers. The victor in the Supreme Court has forgotten what Justice Brennan writes in his dissent: the ''mandate to inculcate moral and political values is not a general warrant to act as thought police. . . .'' Those who call for higher standards can also signal a return to a rigid curriculum at Madison High.
Our concern that things are out of control prompts us to shore up the framework of our institutions. Anxiety about the future gets reflected in a mandate to shape up the young. Frustration at the media messages beamed at our children makes it seem more vital to control air time at school.
These are good, caring impulses. But the best high schools are like the smoothest adolescence -- and maybe just as rare. They're a place of transition from childhood to citizenship, a time when the controls are gradually handed over. I missed those chapters in the tale of three high schools.