Serving up ice cream cones or hamburgers hour after hour for low pay to impatient customers may not seem like the best way to spend one's time. But for a lot of teen-agers it beats going to school.

High school kids have good things to say about their part-time jobs. "I "like the people I work with." "I feel good doing a day's work for a day's pay." Or, "I love serving people ice cream because it makes them happy."

Those attitudes apparently are widespread. More than half of America's high school seniors find their part-time jobs more enjoyable than school, according to data collected by the National Center for Educational Statistics.

But this may not be saying very much. Several major surveys of the attitudes of high school students have been consistent in finding that large percentages think school is boring and even unnecessary.

Why are so many young people turned off by school as they confront a world in which education and skills will be at a premium?

In the 1970s, parents and educators concerned about sliding test scores and illiteracy among high school graduates lobbied successfully for more emphasis in schools on basic skills: grammar, computation and reading. But after half a dozen years on this tack, leading members of the educational community have begun to ask whether back-to-basics, by itself, can steer the nation back toward academic excellence.

During the last 18 months the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federally financed agency that assesses the performance of 9-, 13- and 17-year-olds in writing, reading and math, has been releasing some disturbing findings. While younger students, especially blacks, are doing better than children of their age were 10 years ago, the 17-year-olds are not doing as well at writing clear essays, solving math problems or comprehending complex passages.

In November, the assessment agency concluded in a report that American schools have been successful at teaching students to formulate quick and short interpretations, but not to explain and defend their judgments. It described much of the work of the 106,000 students it surveyed as shallow and superficial.

These and other findings have caused educators to begin thinking in more sweeping terms about the future role of the American high school. They have begun to focus more on student attitudes as they look for clues as to what has gone wrong. Unless kids are motivated to learn and develop, no amount of basic instruction in the classroom is going to motivate them.

What is needed, a growing number of studies suggest, may be for schools to change in more fundamental ways--to challenge students whose interests and environment are substantially different from what their parents knew when they were growing up.

"If we agree that these kids have more information, that they are subject to the influences of mass communication, that they are more mobile and more influenced by their peers, that they are less inclined to accept authority unchallenged--then we have to bring into question the way school is now structured," says Ernest L. Boyer, who was U.S. commissioner of education in the Carter administration and now is supervising a major new study of high schools for the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

What these changes would look like forms the basis for a growing debate among educators. But the deeds and words of young people may provide the best clues to educational reformers about what motivates kids in the '80s.

Neither what young people do or say suggests that this generation of kids is basically lazy, selfish or unwilling to respond to discipline and challenges. That is certainly not the message coming from the steadily rising proportion of high school seniors who work at part-time jobs.

When they explain why they work, they mention money and a desire to buy the things they want. But they also say they enjoy the responsibility, the chance to do something that seems useful, the action and the satisfaction of working with others.

As schools cut back on programs, many young people are creating their own educational worlds outside school. They are establishing musical or theater groups without adult help, attending dance or karate classes with adults, traveling widely with the help and support of their parents, or joining non-traditional religious or self-help groups.

Surprisingly large numbers of teen-agers also volunteer for unpaid community service when given the chance. With the help of local employers and public agencies, some high schools have sent students to work at city halls, banks, brokerage houses and real estate offices; to assist teachers in elementary schools, and to answer phones at public interest organizations that help old people who can't pay their winter fuel bills.

Kids in the '80s often accept the authority of their classmates more readily than that of schools and families, a trait that some schools and organizations use to advantage. At the federally funded Job Corps center in Morganfield, Ky., veteran corpsmen "get on the case" of newcomers who seem likely to drop out.

"Hey, man, you gonna go home and drink your whiskey and smoke your pot and mess up your whole life? You stay right here," says an 11-month veteran who is giving the treatment to a newcomer.

There are millions of American teen-agers, of course, who love their schools and their teachers. Millions of kids can't be kept away from school even when they are sick. A number of sociological studies have concluded that these young people know their schools and teachers are good, and they know why.

The words and phrases that repeat themselves are "good school spirit," "teachers care about us as individuals," "people are nice to each other," "discipline." In these successful schools, academic excellence is almost taken for granted, yet kids mention other qualities besides academics in describing what is good about their schools.

There are schools with low absenteeism and high school spirit all over the country, in poor communities as well as rich ones. They range from the academically challenging Bronx High School of Science to Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington. Different as these schools are, educational experts find a common element: a clear sense of purpose and objectives which the school communicates to the students.

The clues to what motivates young people add up to a complex mixture of signals and messages, say educators. Young people want to break out of the isolation and routine of the school, to link up with the community and its institutions.

They are searching, sometimes almost desperately, for ways to use and develop personal qualities in addition to their intellects. But they also respond enthusiastically to the rigors and discipline of schools when those schools seem committed to serving their real interests.

"Whether we like it or not, at the age of 15 or 16 people have ideas of their own about what's legitimate and what's Mickey Mouse," says Carnegie's Boyer. "Most kids go to school because the law says they have to or because they have their own personal reasons. We can either just sock it to them--we can crack down on truants and put more guards in the hall--or we can develop institutions that can engage kids in ways that are authentic."

Dean John I. Goodlad of UCLA's graduate school of education, calling education "too significant to be left to the schools alone," has proposed "new configurations of educational institutions--household, school, church, business and industry, television."

Around the country, there are already scattered signs of business's renewed interest in high schools. Major local and national companies are close to an agreement with the District of Columbia public school system to organize high school programs in engineering and computer sciences.

Citicorp in New York City invites selected high school students to use its computers during non-business hours. Some schools in California and Florida have brought in retired persons from the community to help students relate the events described in their history books to the experiences of these older people.

Many of the problems being blamed on schools plainly are not of the schools' making. They have to do with changes in society, and in the role that schools have been required to play in the last 20 years.

In 1957, educator James S. Conant put his stamp of approval on the large comprehensive high school and helped cement a consensus between schools and communities about the institution's role. In the middle of the 1960s the consensus shifted under the pressures of the civil rights movement. Schools were given a new leading role in desegregating society and compensating for more than a century of shortcomings in black education.

Today, however, there is remarkably little agreement about what schools should be. When Goodlad of UCLA surveyed 38 schools, 17,000 students, 8,500 parents and 3,500 teachers for his "A Study of Schooling," he found wide discrepancies even in what schools teach.

Increasingly, according to Goodlad, the American family, with its economic pressures, working mothers and high divorce rate, judges schools on their degree of personal caring, not just on their intellectual strengths.

Only half the parents surveyed by Goodlad wanted the main goal of their children's schools to be intellectual. The other half wanted personal, social or vocational goals emphasized.

The old values of getting ahead by studying hard, obeying teachers and respecting employers still apply in many families, of course.

"Everytime I get discouraged I think to myself, 'I just don't want to work in a factory,' " says a Salvadoran immigrant who is now a sophomore at the University of Massachusetts.

But for millions of other young people in the vast American middle class, the old values seem to be searching for a modern context. When Goodlad asked students to identify the one best thing about their schools, 34.9 percent said friends, 13.4 percent said sports, 11.3 percent said good student attitudes. Only 7 percent said classes, and 8 percent answered "nothing."

Goodlad and his researchers found the tone of classrooms they visited flat.

"Teachers tend to teach as they were taught, using the same kinds of materials with which they were taught. After the fourth grade teaching practices become quite predictable: telling and questioning the students and giving seat-work exercises involving textbooks and workbooks, quizzes and the like. There is very little praise for student performance, very little laughter and exuberance and relatively little moving about."

Teachers were spending 70 percent of their time in these kinds of activities and the other 30 percent of their time controlling behavior and managing classroom routine, the researchers found.

Benjamin S. Bloom, distinguished service professor of education at the University of Chicago, considers schools to be markedly different from most other institutions in American life.

"At no other time in his career as a worker, member of a family, citizen or person engaging in leisure activities will he be judged so frequently by others, and, it is possible, by himself . . . . Repeated evidence of inadequacy in school makes the entire institution the source of the individual's sense of inadequacy and he must avoid the institution or find some way of reducing the amount of pain it gives him."

Drama instructor Rebecca Rice says her experiences working with high school students at Washington's Living Stage causes her to worry about how well the schools are instilling qualities such as self-confidence and imagination.

Her technique for getting her teen-age students to loosen up and express their creativity is to play a record and tell them to move with the music while they let their imaginations go. Or she has the kids pretend they are survivors of a nuclear attack. They make up their own parts and blurt out a few lines of poetry to describe their feelings.

"You have to work up slowly to this," says Rice. "A lot of them just can't handle it. They want to know what the right way is, and whether they got the right answer. They want to please me. Tears will be shed. They don't understand there is no right answer. I tell them, 'There are 27 different ways of doing it--you've got to trust yourself.' "

Boyer of the Carnegie Foundation says the message from this and other examples is that many schools have become "holding companies in which kids develop their own subculture to fit their needs."

Resistance to change and fads has always been one of the great strengths of American schools. Their adherence to traditional values provides one of the few threads of continuity in a society that changes with breathtaking speed. But that quality may not be the asset it once was.

Since 1973, there have been at least four major studies of youth and education, in addition to Goodlad's, all of which have argued for fundamental reforms that would bring schooling into line with the changed social and technological conditions of the '80s.

All suggest that the real challenge to families and communities, as well as schools, is to rekindle youthful motivation and rebuild a sense of connection between learning, life, careers and personal development.

In 1973, the President's Science Advisory Committtee, chaired by University of Chicago sociologist James S. Coleman, issued "Youth: Transition to Adulthood." It said young people were increasingly isolated from the adult world and urged that education include meaningful work experiences as well as academic training.

The same year, the National Commission on the Reform of Secondary Education, headed by B. Frank Brown, issued "The Reform of Secondary Education." It agreed with the Coleman study that the connection between schools and the real world of work and the community needed to be strengthened.

It said high schools should consider giving academic credit for service and on-the-job training outside the school, so there could be a "wide variety of paths leading to completion of graduation requirements."

In 1976, the National Panel on High School and Adolescent Education, directed by John Henry Martin, issued "The Education of Adolescents." It called for bold innovations: much more extensive use of television, and more aesthetic experiences for students. It called the high school a valuable but static institution which has had difficulty adjusting to social change.

In 1979, the Carnegie Council on Policy Studies in Higher Education published "Giving Youth a Better Chance." It called for the "break-up of the big monolithic high school and its deadly weekly routine." It recommended the abolition of academic tracking and the creation of centers in schools that would help place students in jobs and stay in touch with them for two years after graduation.

These studies are gathering dust now in academic archives because attempts to execute the ideas have been limited. To proponents of the back-to-basics approach, many of the concerns raised in the studies seem peripheral to the immediate problem of improving the fundamental literacy of high school students.

Some educators, however, are arguing that the two sets of concerns are related. Improving literacy may require a first step of making school seem important to students.

D.C. School Superintendent Floretta D. McKenzie, for example, has said she believes in expanding the concept of basic education. "We are very much for reading, writing and computation skills," she said. "But we are also very much for teaching young persons about their bodies, about being good citizens and about the arts."

To many parents, the idea of innovation smacks of open classrooms, gradeless courses and the relaxation of academic supervision, experiments played out in the '60s. Boyer argues, however, that real reforms would mean more rigorous schools and higher standards of performance.

In recent years, schools have been experimenting in that direction. There are now more than 1,000 alternative programs in schools around the country, up from a few dozen in the early 1970s. Most have as premises increased performance standards, not more permissive programs.

Some attempt to lower the barriers between schools and communities. Evanston Township High School in Evanston, Ill., has sent students into Chicago to interview businessmen and write reports on what they learn.

At Parkway, an ungraded public school in Philadelphia, 65 percent of the students are taking a course taught or monitored by someone not on the faculty. Some students take most of their courses in the community--at universities, museums, health and social service institutions, and businesses.

In the past two years Parkway's dropout rate has been 50 percent lower, attendance 20 percent higher and reading achievement scores superior to those of two large comprehensive high schools whose student populations are similar to Parkway's, according to director James H. Lytle. It ranks third out of 30 city high schools in college placement.

Lytle and others do not claim that Parkway would work for all students, but it has one quality that Boyer and some other reformers feel is essential to success: it constantly re-examines what it does.

Teachers are "isolated in the classroom," says Boyer. "Very rarely is the question asked, 'What are we doing together?' "

By contrast, the Job Corps camp in Morganfield, Ky., monitors the academic and vocational progress of each corpsmen with computers fed with fresh data daily. When a "glitch" shows up, indicating a failure or a problem, the corpsman's teacher, supervisor and counselor schedule a meeting immediately.

Some schools have begun challenging their brightest students by giving them teaching assignments. The objective is to help them develop personal qualities they will need for a lifetime rather than let them just coast through on natural talent.

Boyer says it would be interesting to extend this concept to a school's entire student body by making development of teaching skills part of every student's curriculum. For example, every student could be graded on teaching ability, along with attendance and conduct. This might help spread a sense of responsibility for the whole school's performance to all students.

Other schools are trying to bring parents into the educational process. Parkway, for example, requires parents of prospective students to visit the school at least once.

In the alternative program at North Central High School in Indianapolis, parents co-sign the "contracts" in which students commit themselves to specific academic or personal goals after a negotiating session with teachers.

Gary Phillips, who heads the School Improvement Project of the Charles F. Kettering Foundation, predicts that schools will eventually serve less as disseminators of knowledge than as brokers of services to the youth of the community.

In a short time, he predicts, "no teacher will be as effective in disseminating current and comprehensive information as the media and computers."

In such a situation, he says, "any teacher who could be replaced by a computer should be," but teachers would assume new roles such as helping students plan curricula, reviewing their work, or arranging contacts between students and employers or community organizations.

These are radical notions that can seem threatening to a school system that is suspicious of change and experiments imposed on it by outsiders.

But the stakes are high.

Goodlad puts it this way: "What our society beyond schools does not do well is to provide sustained cultivation of the higher literacies: sensitivity to phenomena and stimuli, compassion, an inquiring mode of life, an ability to synthesize related events. This is the education that our schools must provide. This is the education most easily squeezed out."