San Francisco — American public schools need ''a new agenda'' and a Cabinet-level agency to act as a ''bully pulpit'' for rallying support from a skeptical public.
That's what Scott D.Thomson, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) says.
In an interview, during the association's recent convention here, Dr. Thomson said: ''This country has no choice as far as its public schools are concerned. If it wants to be a modern, advanced society, that's a contradiction unless it has a strong public school system. It's not an education problem - it's an economic and national problem.''
His new agenda would include these elements: high schools should give priority to fundamental communication and computation skills; reading, writing, and foreign language study should get new emphasis; among requirements for a diploma should be ''computation skills and quantitative thought, the essentials for participation in tomorrow's technological society''; all students should understand basic mathematical concepts and applications, including statistics and computer mathematics.
''We're entering an 'information age,' '' says Thomson, and one reason Americans are critical of schools is because they feel schools are not responding fast and strong enough to its demands.
The school administrator, formerly a high school principal in Palo Alto, Calif., and a district superintendent in Evanston, Ill., sees the 1970s as a sort of wilderness experience for American public schools. They responded to public demand for a high school diploma and entry into college for virtually everyone. The federal government, through regulation and financial aid emphasized equal educational opportunity for the handicapped, minorities, bilingual, low-income and other special-needs students.
''Those were the social demands of the times. The schools, rather than being unresponsive as some charge, may have been too responsive to those demands.
''Now there are new requirements in society. We're in a newly competitive world. It's a new economic and social context for schools.''
But the federal government still follows the ''old agenda,'' Thomson says. ''Last year's budget had over $1 billion assigned to special education and only especially from the federal level, on helping special-needs students will not, argues Thomson, help the US compete with the Japanese, with their stringent requirements for math proficiency; or the Soviets, who graduate 10 times as many trained technicicans as American schools do; or the French, who have made a commitment to fully equip every high school in their country with computers at national expense.
''School officials understand a change in the public mood and have abandoned much of the old agenda - even though many of the rules and regulations still follow it.''
But, Thomson points out, ''we haven't informed the public about what we're doing. Part of reason for that is that now only 30 percent or less of public are parents of school kids, and so many peole have no way of knowing that we began shifting back toward higher standards four years ago and have been moving that way ever since.
''Not that the schools don't have more work to do, but we're further ahead than people realize.''
Besides teaching school administrators how to communicate better, the NASSP has enlisted the support of actor Jack Lemmon and some other well-known public figures to ''star'' in a nine-minute film that premiered at the San Francisco meeting. With Lemmon, who has a daughter in public high school, as narrator, the film features prominent personalities delivering a simple message: ''If everybody rolls up their sleeves and gets involved, we can have better schools.''
Thomson says the film will be distributed to all school districts in the country, and he hopes to have television stations build discussion shows around it. There will even be an attempt to get movie houses to run it as a ''short subject.''
But to progress as it should, according to Dr. Thomson, the US educational system needs a clearer sense of direction. ''We really are confused as a nation about what we want our schools to do and how. We need some very clear thinking about what we want our schools to accomplish in the new information age.
''For this we must have a Department of Education . . . (as) a platform, a place to articulate the (educational) needs of the nation. But it should not be a watchdog agency, an agency that's looking backward. It has to look forward.
''The US has always had the advantage of being the only nation in the world with universal ecucation through high school, and with strong college system on board. That no longer is the case. During the '70s major new investments were made in the school systems of all the other industrialized countries, with the possible exception of Great Britain.
''We have the kind of competiton we've never faced before. We are in a world market where the human resources of other nations are equal or superior to ours. They've learned to take the best of their old systems and the best of ours and challenge us.