THE REV. JESSE JACKSON has helped give a new prominence to an old idea: If students work hard they'll learn, and if they learn they'll be better off. For the past two years the Chicago-based black activist has been traveling around the country promoting the EXCEL program that he developed to encourage disaffected high school students to study. His appropriate target has been inner-city high schools plagued by student misbehavior and poor academic performance. That the idea should even seem novel is tribute to the fact that many students in these schools have accepted the insidious, patronizing view of some educational theorists and bureaucrats that their dire circumstances justify bad behavior and an unwillingness to learn. We reject that view and so does the Rev. Jackson. He knows from personal experience that a good education will provide these youths their best chance of fulfilling themselves and becoming productive members of society.

The methods of the EXCEL program are simple: Students, parents, teachers and school principals formally pledge to see to it that homework gets assigned and that studying gets done. Students pledge to study at least two hours a night without interruption. Parents pledge to enforce this study period. There is more to this "moral contract," as the Rev. Jackson calls it, but it all boils down to cultivating in students both the desire for academic achievement and the self-discipline to pursue it.

Last year school officials in Chicago, Kansas City and Los Angeles adopted the program for several of their schools. And recently it's been enthusiastically endorsed by HEW Secretary Joseph Califano Jr. Mr. Califano awarded the Rev. jackson's organization, PUSH for Excellence, two grants totaling $45,000 that are to help them determine the program's influence on students in the 21 schools where it now operates and plan its expansion to other communities. These grants are likely to lead to a considerably larger federal financial commitment.

So you could say, in a way, that the Rev. Jackson's program is "on trial." But so, we would insist, is HEW. It remains to be seen whether its involvement can stay benign. Unfortunately, it is all too easy to envision the EXCEL program's running afoul of those educators and social welfare "experts" who, by their insistence that inner-city students shouldn't have to measure up to the same standards as their own children, doom those they profess to help to continued second-class citizenship. Again, given officialdom's inclination toward literalism and strict regulation, we can envision the EXCEL program's being burdened down and finally sunk with pages of rules.

The EXCEL program does ned to be arranged so that it does not require (as it does now) Mr. Jackson's intimate involvement, an determining how to do that is one of the reasons for the federal grants. But the program's very success in being tailored to specific schools and communities, it seems to us, requires as few federal bureaucratic encumbrances as possible.

Mr. Califano seems aware of all this. He says the EXCEL program will continue to receive top-level attention and not be submerged in government glue. We hope so. A strong selling point for public support of the EXCEL program is that it is a private initiative. The trick will be keeping the federal government's helping hand from becoming a stranglehold.