BEYOND COMPLAINING about them, the great American universities have not really taken much notice of high schools in recent years. University professors frequently make amusing remarks about the defects in their students' prior training. Except for this helpful contribution, not many of them have done a great deal to improve matters. But things seem to be changing. There is a sense that the criticism has been overdone. More usefully, the people who run six of the greatest of the universities met last week and made a remarkable offer of serious and substantial assistance.

American school systems are going to need more money to do a better job, but that's only the beginning. They will also need something that only the strong universities can reliably provide--contact with research scholars and scientists who can give support and encouragement to high school teachers and their students. The presidents of the six universities--Stanford, Harvard, Chicago, Wisconsin, Michigan and Columbia--declared that they "welcome a role as partners and advocates for our colleagues in the public schools."

What are the universities going to do? They cited a long list of possibilities. One is to build affiliations with schools. Another is to bring university faculty into collaboration with high school teachers. A third is to work to improve teacher education; that includes creating opportunities to help classroom teachers directly.

Another notable suggestion by the six presidents was to encourage their own students to consider going into teaching. While several of these universities have their own schools of education, they have not generally done much to point their undergraduates toward teaching in the public schools. The production of teachers has been left on the whole to the state colleges and not, unhappily, always to the strongest of them. Even worse, the state colleges in most parts of the country have persuaded their legislatures to give them what amounts to monopolies through the creation of elaborate and redundant requirements for teacher certification. To open the field of teaching to a wider range of candidates is one of the most important reforms that the schools now require. This expression of interest from Stanford, Harvard, etc., is a necessary prerequisite to any progress there.

The six presidents' declaration is salutary acknowledgment that high school teachers are crucial people in the educational system. Academics who are committed to excellence at the most advanced levels need to pay close attention to what's happening farther down the ladder, in the years before their students arrive at the university. The university years are a bit late for a young mathematician to start calculus or for future historians and diplomats to begin learning foreign languages. Although high school teachers know it perfectly well, they sometimes have difficulty carrying that message to school boards and parents, let alone young children. Help from highly influential quarters now appears to be on the way.