Fix failing schools. That's the administration's new slogan on education policy. Facile it may be, but it speaks to one of the toughest jobs in education.

To get better results, say President Clinton and Education Secretary Richard W. Riley, the nation has to turn around the numerous public schools that have failed to meet local or state standards in student achievement.

Most failing schools, so judged by standardized test results, are situated in inner cities and peopled by low-income, minority students who bring social problems to class and move frequently from school to school. Achievement has been low for so long in these schools that if there were a simple formula for fixing them, it would have been used by now.

Then how to do it? A new study conducted for the Education Department shows, first of all, that it has already been done in some cities. The report identifies nine elementary schools with high test scores--even though their enrollments range from 63 percent to 80 percent poor and from 70 percent minority to all black.

"These schools have attained higher levels of achievement than most schools in their states or most schools in the nation. They have achieved results in reading and mathematics beyond that achieved in some suburban schools," researchers from the University of Texas conclude in the study entitled, "Hope for Urban Education."

They figure there are 90 similar schools around the country.

Except for Gladys Noon Spellman Elementary School in Prince George's County, the nine schools are in urban areas, including one in the wasteland of East St. Louis, Ill. Others are in Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, Atlanta, Houston and San Antonio.

Each of the schools has made an academic turnaround in the past five years. It took some three to four years to get there; others as long as a decade. They didn't all follow the same approach. None has done anything radical.

But in examining how the schools got better, researchers did find some similarities.

On the academic side, the schools matched what was taught to the standards and tests of their state or school district. More time was carved out for instruction during the school day--in one school, by tutoring students at lunchtime--or afterward. Teachers got adequate training and resources, and more time to plan lessons.

Leadership also made a difference. Principals made their first goal a relatively easy change, such as improving discipline or sprucing up the school, before taking on tougher tasks. School staff and parents set aside differences, focused on student needs and shared responsibility for raising achievement. Principals acted as instructional leaders, not merely administrators.

The common factor listed last might be the most important: "In spite of challenges and frustrations, school leaders did not stop trying to improve their schools."

It is not the first study to identify what successful schools have in common. As long as two decades ago, the late Ronald Edmonds, an education professor at Michigan State University, spelled out the characteristics of "effective schools."

Then why do many schools still fail? The University of Texas researchers generously suggest that some educators may not know what to do or, more ominously, may believe "this level of achievement . . . could not be attained at 'my school.' " That runs contrary to another slogan that has supposedly become conventional wisdom: "All children can learn."

PET PROJECTS: Congressional earmarks were hit hardest when the Education Department made the across-the-board cut required in the budget agreement. The department trimmed $14.3 million of the $190 million set aside for 225 congressional pet projects in more than 40 states; the average cut was 7.5 percent.

Appropriators handed out some of the largess to serve political vanity--in a bipartisan way. The School of Public Policy at the University of Washington, named after former GOP senator Daniel J. Evans, winds up with $2.8 million, down from the $3 million appropriated. So does an institute at Washington State University named for former House speaker Thomas S. Foley, a Democrat.

Zoos do all right, too. Philadelphia's zoo winds up with $231,000, down from the $250,000 appropriated, and a zoo and aquarium in the Chicago area will share $463,000, down from $500,000. For education programs. Really.