LEGISLATORS and corporate leaders talk energetically about reforming education -- but what's going on in the classrooms, the real front lines? Every few years, the New Jersey-based Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching asks some 21,000 teachers about their profession and, in particular, about whether and how the vaunted reform movement is affecting them. The latest answers aren't especially reassuring.

In the 1990 report, teachers offer evidence of continued energy and often idealism -- and for the first time they make no mention of unlivably low salaries, an omission that suggests at least one area of significant progress. What they do complain about, even more than in previous years, is "apathy" from school systems and communities, lack of parental involvement and the often heart-wrenching obstacles -- abuse, neglect, poverty -- facing their young charges. The obstacles faced by teachers themselves are suggested by the answers that came back when teachers were asked whether they were expected to use their own money to buy such basic supplies as paper, pencils or chalk. Ninety-five percent said yes.

In some states with high-profile reform campaigns, notably Connecticut and Mississippi, high proportions of teachers said the reforms had improved their work lives and flushed energy into the system. Still, some of the most radical "restructuring" plans were cited as sources of alienation, top-down bureaucratic initiatives that made teachers feel more powerless. Some of this can be written off as the natural and even desirable fallout from a challenging shake-up. But it's also an awkward reminder that the more grandiose a reform plan, the greater the danger of its coming unstuck from classroom reality.

Classroom reality got another boost recently with the appearance of a new independent group, the Herndon-based American Association of Parents and Children. It is distributing a state-by-state "educational report card" for parents which culls not just the familiar test-score and grade-level statistics but also such measures as "parental apathy" as measured by teachers, percentage of children eligible for Head Start who are actually enrolled in it, and overall pupil/teacher ratio. There is an appended list of common-sense tips for parents wanting to motivate their children. It can only benefit the reform movement to tap into the initiatives of groups like these and to listen to what they have to say.