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A once-over-lightly look at US high schools

A broad multimedia method of disseminating important new sociological information is making an entertaining though not terribly incisive television debut.

High Schools PBS, airing on various days this week; check local listings for premieres and repeatsm is the televised part of a broad-based campaign to publicize a report on secondary education by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

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It is a film essay on American secondary education based upon the book ''High School: A Report on Secondary Education in America,'' which in turn is based on the report of the Carnegie Foundation by Ernest L. Boyer, president of the foundation. Atlantic Richfield, which contributed $2.5 million toward the funding of the report, is also underwriting the television special which promotes it. The film is produced by Guggenheim Productions Inc. for the Carnegie Foundation and WETA in Washington.

The TV version of ''High School'' is basically an entertainment, no more than a once-over-lightly look at the nation's high schools. The schools prove to be, unsurprisingly, ''a reflection of ourselves,'' according to writer-director Charles Guggenheim and narrator Gordon Pinset.

Most of the observations tend to be glib, facile, superficial; the criticisms seemingly culled from the Carnegie Report try very hard not to offend anyone without also offering a bonbon of praise. The observation that for many students America's high schools are merely ''holding pens'' until young people are old enough to be accepted in the adult world is hardly a new or original concept. But it is offered almost as a great pronouncement. The Carnegie Report's treatment of the hard and disturbing facts about the failure of inner-city school systems to cope with the problem of educating ethnic minorities is never even mentioned in the film.

The Carnegie Report on which ''High Schools'' is based was released in September. It is a 379-page volume, the result of an extensive - and expensive - study by teachers, principals, superintendents, administrators, parents, school board members, private citizens . . . and, of course, Carnegie Foundation staff members. It is a carefully designed research which involved more than 2,000 hours of field research at a cost of more than $3 million.

Among its recommendations: that priority be given to mastery of English, that a more global viewpoint be instilled, that working conditions be improved for teachers, that students be required to engage in some community outreach programs.

''High Schools'' touches on some of these suggestions, flirts with a few others, and then comes to the grand, if obvious, conclusion that the future of America will be won or lost in our public high schools . . . ''based on the quality, wisdom, and commitment of those who teach our children.''

''Our schools are no more than we have made them,'' the TV film concludes rather grandiosely in what seems to be meant as a great moment of revelation. ''They will become no more than we wish them to be.''

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Back to the drawing board, researchers. Three million dollars!

The distribution system for the Carnegie Report and its satellite ''High Schools'' film may be a harbinger of future cross-pollinations of public-service educational materials through the nation's varied communications systems. Although I don't have reason to question its motives, the fact that Atlantic Richfield funded both the original research and the TV film which promotes it smacks disturbingly of a kind of cultural nepotism which could set dangerous precedents for education, for foundations, and for PBS as well.

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