IF CORPORATIONS functioned like most of our school systems, they'd be out of business in no time. In fact, the most dynamic sector in the school industry is the repair business. Educators and politicians vie for headlines on what needs to be done, but, in reality, little changes and our educational system grinds on, a self-protective bureaucracy that puts students and families near the bottom of its priorities.

"Schools are run to accommodate administrative convenience, not for students," says Graham Downs, executive director of the Council for Basic Education.

Look at the school day. At T.C. Williams High School, we start classes at 7:35 a.m. although many teenagers are half asleep at that hour. Lunch starts at 10:20. Students are herded through the standard 50-minute periods, a schedule that creates enormous boredom and makes it especially hard to teach courses such as physics, chemistry and art. At 2 p.m., when they are brimming with energy, we turn the kids loose to homes that will typically be empty for the next four or five hours.

This inflexibility permeates every aspect of the school system's responses. When new problems arise, instead of making adjustments within existing programs, the system creates a new program -- and then gets busy coordinating, implementing and documenting its relations with the new entity.

In 1964, for example, Alexandria's public schools served 17,000 students. The entire central office staff was composed of 40 people and the annual administrative budget was $320,352. Now with a school population of less than 9,500, there are 154 on the central office staff with an administrative budget of more than $3 million.

"The bureaucratic process, says Linda Darling-Hammond of Columbia University, "has created roles for social workers and instructional specialists. We have created separate offices to deal with pregnancy, dropouts, drug abuse, compensatory education, truancy and so on, each with its own hierarchy, paperwork and constituency. It's as though carving up students into little pieces that correspond to programs will somehow adapt them to a bureaucratized, dehumanized system of schooling."

When prolonged neglect of an obvious problem finally weighs on the system's conscience, the response is not to do something, but to hire a consultant. "Bureaucracies go out and hire an outside authority at $100,000 to tell them what their own communities have known for years," says Davi Walders, who has worked in the Montgomery and Fairfax County school systems. Walders, a Montgomery County human-relations commissioner, has heard parents complain for years about the same problems that the county recently paid a Yale consultant to formally discover. Behind this system stagnancy is, ironically, enormous turnover in top management. School superintendents, the CEOs of our school districts, are the highest-paid migrant workers in America, moving to a new job on an average of every 4 1/2 years.

"The constant turnover in superintendents makes it difficult for schools to get consistency or maintain any institutional memory," says Bruce Hunter of the American Association of School Administrators. "No real change will take place unless there is a long-term view."

But superintendents seldom get a chance to take a long view. "In the private sector CEOs meet with their board every three to six months. In large urban areas, a superintendent may meet with his board every week," says Tom Payzant, whose eight-year stint in San Diego is the second longest of any superintendent of a large urban district.

When Prince George's County tried to take a long-term view and sign their highly successful superintendent, John Murphy, to a 10-year contract, a small group of vocal parents and aspiring politicans protested. "They threatened to bring militant groups to the schools if the contract went through," says Murphy. Now there are school board candidates running on a dump-Murphy platform and Murphy is job-hunting.

"Being a superintendent is just not an attractive job, says Graham Downs. "Even the best get chewed up by conflicting forces -- teachers, unions, parents, the school board, your administrative staff, racial groups, the media. It's almost impossible to stay long in one place."

If Alexandria's current superintendent, Paul Masem, leaves after four years on the job, as many dissatisfied parents, teachers and school officials hope, his departure will be part of a cycle common throughout the country. Over the last 18 years Alexandria has gone from a public-relations conscious superintendent, to a hatchet man, then back to a consensus-builder, then to Masem -- another tough house-cleaner. "When he goes, we'll probably get some avuncular PR type," says an experienced school administrator, who notes that such turnover "has a system spinning its wheels. Principals are worried about surviving, not about leading." (Masem has moved 14 of the 17 Alexandria principals so far. In D.C., 99 schools got new principals in the last two years -- a shakeup that contributed ultimately to the stormy firing Friday of Superintendent Andrew E. Jenkins.)

Superintendents "are expected to be messiahs," says Stanford University professor Larry Cuban, Arlington County's school superintendent from 1974 to 1981. "Parents, school boards and other citizens have exaggerated expectations of what schools can do but no real consensus about what they ought to do."

With each new superintendent or new study by a "blue-ribbon panel of experts," it seems as if education is reinvented again.

"A barrage of new concepts keeps us zig-zagging as more and more responsibility for kids' survival is placed on the schools," says an Arlington County administrator. "One of the latest sounds like a character out of Dr. Seuss: 'The At-Risk Gifted Student.' The pendulums are swinging so much they are crashing into each other."

"We are always jumping on something new. Yesterday it was the 'Fred Jones discipline' model {where teachers write the name of an offender on the blackboard.} Now it's 'the 4 Mat System' of learning styles and the 'Skillful Teacher' program. We are desperate for easy, neat solutions to the enormous problems facing schools and families," says a Fairfax County principal.

"In real science," says Emily Feistritzer, head of the National Center for Educational Information, "before theories are used, they're tested; in education, people try fads, and by the time you get to know the new terminology, it's discarded for something equally unproven."

One of the latest fads for elementary school teachers is documentation of BICEP, the Barnstable Instructional Career Educational Program. "Can you imagine keeping a straight face while telling some bureaucrat how you were improving the 'occupational information,' 'attitude toward the dignity of work' and 'economic awareness' of a 6-year-old?" asks one teacher.

Nowhere, sadly, is the hollowness of the bureaucracy's efforts at innovation more evident than in its dealing with disadvantaged children. One Montgomery County administrator says there's "a lot of knee-jerk, Band-Aid response, especially when it comes to minority achievement. We are under pressure to have the right numbers: not too many black kids suspended, get more in honors courses. It's all about looking good and not dealing with the real problems."

In Alexandria this summer, a "self-esteem specialist" from a city agency was sent to a local recreation center to work with 7- to 9-year-old children. "She was well meaning, but it was a pathetic sight," says Northwestern University student Karen Carrington, who had worked successfully with the youngsters all summer. "She had them sit around in a circle and repeat 'I like myself; I am great.' Soon they got bored and started acting up. She asked me to stay in the room because she had trouble keeping order."

It's not just that programs are being thrown at the schools, but that they are often thrown in unintelligible language. Here's a sample co-authored by a national expert who is a consultant to the Alexandria gifted-and-talented program:

"This recognition {of the needs of gifted learners} leads us to realize that the pattern for basic text materials as well as the dominant mode for classroom instruction is a school curriculum organized around the needs of typical learners with a spiral effect of incremental learning modules coupled with heavy doses of reenforcement around a given skill or concept." Silly programs might not matter so much if they were not so often in the hands of mediocre teachers and administrators. But school systems rarely weed out the incompetent, much less the mediocre. They just pass them on to the next jurisdiction.

"Education is an incestuous system, where people get passed around and move up and down the ladder. I am amazed at how little reference-checking is going on," says Feistritzer.

As hard as it is for systems to get the truth about teachers, it's even harder to learn about poor administrators. Says Tony Hanley, former director of personnel in Alexandria, "They're like an old-boys' club that has a code that you don't rat on each other because it could be you that needs a job someday."

A few years ago when there was a principal's opening at an elementary school, the central office allowed teachers at the school to interview the three finalists -- two white women from outside the system and a black male from inside. The faculty, which was predominantly white, chose the black male. The central office decided that the job would go to one of the white women -- a decision that turned out to be a disaster. When the woman's inadequacies, including conducting a travel business out of her office, became more than apparent, she was finally let go -- and landed a job as an administrator in a nearby county.

Jeffrey Irving, who runs his own executive search firm, says that headhunters often do poor jobs: "The search firm is paid and motivated to put someone in the open slot as quickly as possible. Rather than conduct a search from scratch and look for highly successful, actively employed people, some headhunters get lazy and sort through the resumes of people who are out looking. Then they try to present the candidate in his best light -- if he didn't get along in the former system they'll pass it off as a political or a community problem."

"When I'm asked about the first-rate candidates for a superintendent's job, I usually come up with zero," says Carl Dolce, former superintendent of the New Orleans public schools. "The really capable people are involved in jobs and won't break contracts." Not only do school systems seem powerless to get rid of deadwood, they are often indifferent to the talent they have -- or could easily attract. As long as there is a warm body with the requisite hours in education courses standing in front of the classroom, the bureaucrats seem content.

When Michael Mandel came to teach Spanish at T.C. Williams, for example, he had a B.S. in Spanish and a M.S. in applied linguistics from Georgetown University, the requisite education courses and four years teaching experience in a private school. After one year at T.C., students and colleagues alike agreed he was a splendid teacher. But the Virginia Department of Education told him that he needed 22 more hours of course work. No one in Alexandria stood up for Mandel with the state board, so he left T.C. Williams for a job at a community college. Thomas Jefferson School in Fairfax -- which owes much of its success to the fact that, in many ways, it operates independently of the Fairfax bureaucracy -- then recruited him and negotiated with the state to drop 19 of the 22 course hours they wanted him to take.

Or take music teacher Phillip Tacka who had taught at MIT and successfully run experimental programs at a predominantly black high school in Boston. Students at T.C. raved about his classes. At the end of his first year he received not one but four "pink slips" informing him that he could not be sure of a job the next year. So Tacka reluctantly went job-hunting and now teaches at Georgetown University.

A former Fairfax administrator says that "the mindset in personnel offices prefers to hire someone from a mediocre teachers college down the road rather than a graduate of Smith or Sarah Lawrence." When the administrator asked the personnel department why they refused to hire a brilliant modern language teacher with a PhD, the reply was that they didn't feel she'd be "comfortable here" and would soon leave.

Schools also resist hiring bright, mid-career types says Feistritzer: "It's an in-bred world. Young education majors come cheap and are not a threat to the system. If they let in people from the real world, people with real-life experience where you have to produce, people who knocked around, the system will be blown wide-open."

Meanwhile, good teachers who remain in the system often find themselves the most overburdened. "The paradoxical payoff for being a good teacher is more kids and more work, while the payoff for being lousy is fewer kids and less work for the same pay," says Davi Walders. "The teacher who hasn't opened a book in 25 years has a class of 14 and gets away with it because parents in the know will get kids out of his class," she says.

So the educational bureaucracy has created a school culture marked by passivity. Many teachers would rather complain than try to change things. But dynamic people can change the system.

Jim McClure, T.C.'s director of guidance, for example, has built what is considered one of the best departments in the country. McClure, the son of a labor union president, is a hustler and salesman. He does what his instincts tell him is right for kids and asks the bureaucrats permission after the fact. He has such community support that no one in the bureaucracy dares attack him.

Some central office bureaucrats resent his success -- and the fact that when he moves in a new direction they have to work to support him. "Some people here work very hard. But a lot of others just don't want to work," says one administrator. But that's often what bureaucracies are best at -- avoiding real work.

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