It's a recipe for a standoff: schools complaining that their graduates can't find jobs; businesses responding that graduates can't read, write, or compute; and the students themselves viewing school as irrelevant.
So serious is the problem, especially in the inner cities, that it has nearly paralyzed many of America's once-proud school systems.
The Boston public schools, among the most troubled in the nation, may have found a way to break the stalemate recently. It is called the Boston Compact. In substance, it strikes a bargain between the schools and the business community - saying, in effect, that if the schools increase the quality of their products, local businesses will hire them. In potential, it stands to have national ramifications - proving that, in an age of decreasing government funding, public-private partnerships can offer solutions to community problems. It could be the best thing to have happened in Boston for years.
The reasons for its potential are twofold. The first is political. That was most evident at a crowded press conference late last month. Never mind, for a moment, the details of the agreement. Focus simply on the Who's Who of movers and shakers gathered in a rare gush of unity on the same dais:
* School superintendent Robert R. Spillane, who after a year in office has won respect for his educational standards and for his ability to tread the jigging tightrope of Boston politics, made the announcement. With his professionalism barely concealing his feeling of triumph, he described the Compact as ''a far-reaching effort to meld the resources of city government, business, colleges and universities, cultural institutions, and community agencies into a single strategy for helping our high schools.''
* John P. LaWare, chairman of the Shawmut Bank, supported him enthusiastically as chairman of the Coordinating Committee - that shadowy but potent group of corporate leaders known as ''the Vault,'' whose decisions chart the direction of the business community's civic activity. The Vault ''very strongly endorsed'' the 106-page plan, Mr. LaWare said.
* Another Vault member, William S. Edgerly of the State Street Bank & Trust Company, spoke up as chairman of the Private Industry Council. The PIC, and particularly James J. Darr, played a central role in writing the Compact, which Mr. Edgerly praised as ''a pulling together of efforts to achieve meaningful goals.''
* Kevin H. White, the city's mercurial four-term mayor, spoke glowingly of the Compact as ''an incredibly innovative program'' that would help sustain Boston's booming growth by ensuring a constant supply of educated workers. Mayor White, whose rocky relations with school superintendents in the past have led to loggerheads over school budgets, has been widely charged with ignoring the schools. But the day after the press conference the mayor delivered his first major speech on the schools in years. While he offered no new funds, he did promise to help restore confidence in public education.
* John R. Silber, representing college and university presidents whose institutions have individual ''pairings'' with schools, declared himself ''deeply impressed and pleased'' with the document. Dr. Silber, the controversial and outspoken president of Boston University, recently offered to take over the Boston schools and run them more efficiently than the school department could. BU's contribution to the Compact has come through Robert Sperber, the former superintendent of schools in Brookline who, with Dr. Silber's backing, helped line up college and university support.
* Finally, saying little but signifying much, were three members (a majority) of the school committee: Rita Walsh-Tomasini, Kevin A. McCluskey, and chairman Jean Sullivan McKeigue. The school committee is unwinding itself from a past which includes resistance to court-ordered desegregation, prison sentences for members involved in bribery schemes, and a greater interest in patronage jobs than in education. The present committee is perceived to be one of the most able in years - although its has had its knockabouts with Dr. Spillane on racial matters.
Those issues, in fact, may have caused the only cloud overshadowing the glow of unity: the absence of the school committee's two black members. Both were officially excused because they hold full-time jobs. In fact, they have reservations about the Compact, questioning whether it will address the problems of minority children (who are now in the majority in the schools).
Politically, then, it was an impressive display of single-mindedness. To those who know big-city politics, especially in Boston, that in itself augurs great progress - however trivial the report itself might have been. In fact, it is anything but trivial: substantial in detail, yet explicitly vague in areas where policy is not yet formulated. ''This is not a final plan,'' says the preface, ''it is a first step.'' Educators, at least, know when they don't know.
What they do know are the problems they face. ''Only half of the students who enter ninth grade are still attending school as seniors,'' says the report. ''Only a third of the system's high school students read at a grade level equal to their counterparts across the country. Only half of those who graduate from the city's high schools go on directly to college or a full-time job.''
A grim record. How can it be improved? The Compact spells out three central goals: a 5 percent increase per year in the number of students graduating, a guaranteed minimum competency for all graduates by 1986, and a 5 percent increase per year in the number of graduates placed in jobs or further education.
To reach these goals, the Compact requires each high school to publish information in five areas: student attendance, retention, reading and math achievement, college placement, and job placement. It sets up work groups to pursue reforms in 11 areas, including such troubled ones as counseling (student-counselor ratios now stand at about 400 to 1), athletics (few schools have enough uniforms of the same color to clothe a single team), and remediation (30 percent of Boston's high school students scored in the bottom fifth on a recent national reading test).
And it calls for the business community to sign up 200 companies that will agree to give Boston high school graduates first crack at entry-level jobs. Significant, but less important, are the immediate promises: to hire 400 seniors upon graduation, and to expand the summer jobs program by 250. Whether or not they hit those marks, the word is out: The business community cares about public education.
Or so it says. In all this potential, of course, there are dangers.
* Is the unity engendered around this plan only temporary? Black school committee members John D. O'Bryant and Jean M. McGuire, by calling their own press conference on the Compact earlier this week, seem to hold the reins here, and could polarize this into a black-white issue.
* Is this plan so quixotic in its grandeur that its idealism will sink under a weight of impracticality? Boston is full of dust-covered plans, and the road to civic inaction is paved with earnest committees, fat documents, and hopeful press conferences. Is this any different?
* Is this merely a power play by corporate interests to take over education for their own purposes? A century ago, schools were built to look like factories - ensuring a tractable work force whose aspirations went no further than the local mill. Is this a return to a view that educational policy is to be guided not by the long-range needs of students but by the immediate wishes of employers?
No, says Dr. Spillane, who sees the Compact as a means of ensuring liberal (rather than simply vocational and technical) education. A reading of the plan suggests that he is right. Yet the plan is a bit lopsided. Calling for massive reforms in the schools, it says comparatively little about the business community.
And yet, oddly, the success of the Compact depends largely on the the business community. The schools, with nothing to lose, have every reason to carry out their end of the bargain. The business community will have tougher sledding. Economic indicators will rise and wane; corporate affluence will naturally wish to distance itself from community penury; and the fires of local politics will heat up other irons.
So it is essential that the members of the Vault, who so enthusiastically stand behind this plan at the beginning, find in themselves the stamina necessary to see it through to its fulfillment. In 1620, the Pilgrims signed the Mayflower Compact, promising to ''covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic for our better ordering and preservation.'' The Boston Compact of 1982, equally aimed at the future, has those same goals. It deserves the same frontier determination.