Improving the nation's educational system will require many years of thoughtful investment. That sort of long-term commitment doesn't suit the American temperament very well, and many would-be reformers have seized upon the computer as a way to short-cut the process. Thoughtfully used, computers could help out in the schools in many ways, but quick-fix remedies are likely to do more harm than good.

Among the many valuable contributions made in the recently released study by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching is a sober look at the potential for technology in improving U.S. education. The history of classroom innovations is not promising. In the words of the report: "Virtually every new piece of hardware introduced into the schools in the past three decades has been oversold, misused and eventually discarded."

Well-designed computer systems could help schools in many ways. They can tabulate vast amounts of administrative data, provide access to research material, automate and enliven rote learning and, in their most sophisticated incarnations, communicate both visually and verbally with students in the mastery of complicated subject matter.

None of these wonders is produced, however, by plunking down assorted pieces of hardware in classrooms. A computer is no better than the software that tells it what to do. Without thoughtfully designed instructional programs that are thoroughly understood by teachers and made a part of their routine curricula, computers will be of no more enduring interest or value to students than the latest arcade game.

Simply "getting to know" a computer is neither difficult nor especially useful in itself. Most computer users in the future will require no more complicated skills than typing, reading and writing. And for those who want ultimately to become involved in the design and programming of computers, solid understanding of mathematics, language and logic is far better preparation than immersion in the details of a particular system. The real skill in using computers lies in figuring out what they can do and how they can do it better--not in telling them how to do it.

The Carnegie report has many thoughtful suggestions--none of them simple or costless--for making the current wave of technology a more useful contribution to classrooms than earlier waves. Notably absent from that list, however, are the scattershot tax-credit proposals that would allow computer manufacturers to dump their surplus inventory on the schools at the taxpayers' expense.