WHEN THE school year at George Mason Elementary School in Alexandria started two weeks ago, 15 white children due to enter the fourth grade were absent. Their parents had pulled them out, convinced that George Mason's mix of well-off white kids from the neighborhood and low-income black children bused in from housing projects was no longer working. Some of these parents had been active supporters of the public schools for more than a decade as their older kids passed through and gained acceptance at the nation's most competitive colleges.

"We became victims of a political philosophy that wants kids in the same classroom regardless of motivation, ability, interest or self-control," says Carol La Sasso, who took her 9-year-old daughter out of the school. A professor of education at Gallaudet University, La Sasso -- along with other parents -- had had several meetings with school prinicipal Felicia Lanham Tarason. The parents had described almost constant disruptions by unruly students in the classroom (one teacher recently complained to me "I'm not a teacher, I'm a cop"), the virtual abandonment of instruction in science and social studies (because, a teacher explained, half the students could not read the tests) and the practice of having all students proceed at the same pace through textbooks irrespective of preparation and ability.

"Essentially, we were being asked to accept a watered-down curriculum and double standards of discipline for the sake of social engineering," says La Sasso. "Racial politics is killing us," says a George Mason teacher.

The ugly situation at George Mason highlights what is becoming one of the explosive questions in education: How can schools with increasingly diverse student bodies assure parents that there will be learning and discipline in their classrooms without segregating children into "ability" groups that often limit their development?

The struggle plays out in various ways in local systems. In the District of Columbia, most whites and many middle-class blacks have tried to sidestep the issue by sending their kids to private schools. "What you pay for in a private school is not the teaching, but the clientele. You don't have to worry about the underclass messing things up for your kid," says one mother who has tried both public and private eduation.

But most educators see disaster for public education in the flight of middle-class families. "Schools desperately need the middle class," says a D.C. school administrator. "Their advocacy for their own kids expands programs for others. That's how the successful Capitol Hill Cluster schools came about. The genius of John Murphy {the Prince George's County superintendent} is that he's convinced middle-class parents that their kids can receive as good an education in Prince George's magnet schools as in private schools. It's romantic hogwash to talk about a school system made up of poor kids and dedicated teachers. You need the pushy middle-class parents to make things happen." What the "pushy parents" often want -- and get -- is their own private school at taxpayers' expense. Those schools-within-a-school usually operate under the trade name of "Gifted and Talented programs." In Fairfax County, for example, students who get into GT programs, or into the Thomas Jefferson School for Science and Technology, can get an education few private schools can match. This accommodation to middle-class concerns has, however, given rise to a whole new set of destructive pressures.

In prosperous Fairfax, parental anxiety focuses not on the fear that their children will be bumping elbows with the underclass, but that they will be cast into the netherworld of the ungifted and untalented.

The winnowing starts early. In third grade, kids whose IQs test at 140 or more can leave their regular schools for a "Gifted Center," where they will be grouped with geniuses-in-the-making from other elementary schools. Most Fairfax parents view getting their 9-year-olds into "the center" as an enormous merit badge. "If kids don't get in the first time, many parents have them privately tested. It's like paying for an IQ score," says a Fairfax high school guidance counselor.

"Parents feel that they are limiting their kids' futures unless they get in the gifted program. Once a kid gets the label, everyone feels better," says Fairfax family therapist Jerald Newberry. But more than future employability is thought to be at stake. One mother worried to Alexandria Superintendent Paul Masem that her son would miss the neighborhood "social cut-off" if he was barred from the gifted program. He'd be "off the birthday-party lists," she mourned.

Those kids who score "only" 130-139 also get the label "gifted" but stay in their own schools with the "non-gifted." Although they get the label and are grouped together for most of their classes, "going to the center" has the real status. "The center kids are the terminally gifted," chuckles one counselor.

Failing the imprimatur of a "gifted" label, much less induction into the hallowed "center," middle-class Fairfax parents often ship their children off to private school. "The first line of white flight is kids who were left back with the 'average' students," says Masem. One Northern Virginia private-school administrator conceded that the bulk of his students were escapees from the "average" tracks in the public schools.

"It's not acceptable for a child to be average in Fairfax," a teacher remarked. "They're constantly comparing kids -- who's on the best soccer or swim team, who's in gifted and talented." But the obsession with labeling one's kids as exceptional extends throughout the Washington area. A full 10 seconds after I met him, one Alexandria parent told me that his child was "Phase 4 all the way." (Phase 4 is the honors track.) Those cursed with average children may take refuge in other labels. "Learning Disabled" is a current favorite for the less-than-spectacular. Never mind how such a term may affect a child whose talents are still unfolding; apparently it assuages parental anxiety to feel that a child is afflicted with an identifiable syndrome, not suffering from a simple case of averageness. "The label creates an altered person and relieves the parents of the stigma of having passed on mediocre genes," says Newberry.

An Old Town Alexandria parent who had two kids in the gifted program put things in perspective: "Tracking at the elementary level is invidious. Kids are given a gifted label on the basis of social status and the level of conversation at the dinner table. The problem is that middle-class parents are at their most hysterical in those early years. I remember all these Old Town mothers talking about their 'brilliant boys.' They thought their kids deserved special attention at anyone's expense."

Several elementary school teachers whose classes are fought for by white parents told me that they are fed up with the "gifted" labeling. "It's an attempt by snobby white parents to separate their kids from the black kids," said one teacher. "Most of the white kids who get the label are not gifted at all. Many of the black kids are just as smart but haven't had the exposure."

The anxiety gifted programs cause for parents is inconsequential compared to the psychological effect tracking programs can have on the kids who don't get the "gifted and talented" label. As the late Washington Post editorialist Alan Barth often observed, there is hardly any kid who isn't bright enough to understand that he isn't considered very bright.

A white Fairfax guidance counselor said that her son's friends would ask him why he wasn't in the gifted program when he got such good grades. "I explained to him a hundred different ways that it didn't make any difference," she says. "But in his mind it still came out that he wasn't as good as his friends in the program." For minority students the implied label of "ungifted" is especially pernicious. T.C. Williams graduate Karen Carrington has bitter memories of the days in fourth grade when her "gifted" peers would be pulled out of class. "They got to do the interesting things that would stimulate any kid to learn. They had the plays, the fun projects; they cooked Chinese food. The rest of us would sit in the classroom and do 50 of the same problems over and over again. That would make anyone feel inferior. But when you're black and almost all the 'gifted' kids who are pulled out are white, it makes you feel even worse," says Carrington, who overcame those feelings to become a top student at Northwestern University.

Students in the gifted programs not only get the advantage of heightened self-esteem -- deserved or not -- but tangible resources from the system as well. In Fairfax county "the GT kids get more field trips, and special events and speakers, because there is more funding," says the Fairfax counselor. They also tend to get the better teachers. Meanwhile, the average or weak students get what Paul Masem calls the "ditto curriculum" -- a constant diet of fill-in-the-blank worksheets to keep them quiet.

GT tracking also feeds the natural inflexibility of school bureaucracies. "Parents have to ride herd on the schools," says Frank Matthews, publisher of Black Issues in Higher Education. "I haven't been able to figure out why they are so resistant to putting kids into those programs and challenging them. You have to keep fighting to get your kids into a decent curriculum, or else they'll get shuffled off into these huge cattle-call courses where no one is challenged." Matthews, a professor at George Mason University, had to argue with school officials to get his math-talented son into appropriately demanding classes.

Black and Latino parents are often least willing or able to put needed pressure on overly rigid school bureaucracies. When Matthews asked a counselor about the push from Fairfax's central office to get minorities into challenging courses, the counselor replied that the initiative is only at the superintendent's level. "We don't feel any pressure at the school level," the counselor told him.

University of Virginia sophomore Phalana Tiller recalls that when she was in eighth grade at George Washington Junior High School, her teachers wanted to move her up to advanced science and math. "My counselor tried to hold me back. I was told that 'black kids usually don't do well in those courses.' My mom had to come in and put up a fight to get me moved up. You hear all this stuff about honors courses being so intimidating but when I got in I enjoyed them and did well. They were so different from the boring lower-level courses," says Tiller.

"I've seen brilliant kids excluded from classes where they would have excelled because they came out one point under the magic cutoff score," says Davi Walders, who has taught in both Fairfax and Montgomery counties. "Administrators go around rending their garments and saying, 'We want black kids in the GT program but we can't find many with 140 IQs.' There are all kinds of talented black {and white} kids whose abilities are not measured by those scores."

Some black educators see the tracking system as a deliberate attempt to counter legal gains won by the civil-rights movement. Howard University professor Richard Wright feels that "the whole gifted and talented movement is a political response to desegregation, an attempt to exclude certain individuals from the political elite. The schools are supposed to be the great equalizers. What is happening is that all the energy is going to the privileged." Whether the result is intentional or not, there is growing criticism from black parents and educators that attempts to deal with the special needs of minorities are not working. This week, for example, a prominent Yale psychologist issued a report concluding that Montgomery County's magnet schools were leading to more, not less, segregation. The report echoed similar recent criticisms of Prince George's County, where disproportionately high rates of disciplinary actions among black male students are also an issue. But whatever the merits of those charges, the alternatives -- eliminating advanced programs for more able or ambitious students or ignoring real disciplinary problems -- are not the answer.

"The pendulum is swinging toward mixing all kids together," says Bob McDonough, a College Board official. "But when they realize that doesn't do squat for bright kids, it will swing back again. When minorities complain about anything, liberal educators jump on the bandwagon. {But} if you bore bright kids by mixing them with weak students, they aren't going to respond by taking over your class and instructing other kids. They become problems, and tune out."

Still there are alternatives to either extreme. "Schools really ought to concentrate on getting good teachers for everyone," says Jim Dawes, a truly gifted former student of mine. "Right now the kids in the top tracks get the best teachers. But that is not the fault of tracking. It's the fault of school administrators who hired the real losers and won't get rid of them."

Another is to recognize that more flexible grouping can be both workable and rewarding for all levels of students -- but only if the will, and the resources, are there to make it work.

I saw one great model in action this past week. At Alexandria's Cora Kelly magnet school, 40 third-graders of the same racial and socioeconomic mix that disintegrated the third grade at George Mason last year, worked quietly in groups of three or four. Some were doing material way above their grade level; others were tryng to catch up. The atmosphere was serious, yet it was obvious these kids were both learning and enjoying themselves. The magnet school has the funds, the space, hand-picked teachers, an experienced principal and parents who made a conscious decision to put their kids in that environment. Perhaps most important -- it had careful planning.

So we can't reform the tracking system overnight. But we can make one sure start: eliminate the labels. Peggy O'Brien, head of education at the Folger Shakespeare Library, makes the point another way. People, she says, often call her at the Folger to inquire about programs or speaking engagements and introduce themselves by saying: "I'm so-and-so and I teach the gifted and talented." O'Brien says she always responds that she thinks every kid is gifted and talented. "These people treat Shakespeare as if you have to be very bright and very white to even begin to comprehend him," O'Brien notes. "They forget that the crowd in the Globe Theater watching Hamlet in 1603 was not the 'gifted and talented'; it was everyone."

Patrick Welsh teaches English at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria.