School's out or soon will be - but there will be little respite this summer for the custodians of America's future. Four front-runners in the school-study marathon have already presented their findings. Twenty more reports are approaching the finish line. These reports confront school administrators, teachers, and the taxpaying public with the urgency of school reform.
Better schools are needed, say the publicly and privately commissioned panels , for these reasons:
* To help individuals realize their fullest potential in life.
* To encourage full participation in democratic decisionmaking by enabling citizens to reach some common understandings on complex issues.
* To keep America competitive with other nations in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation.
Better teaching and a more ''solid'' curriculum emerge as the reforms of first importance to those who have been studying the nation's high schools.
How to recruit brighter students as prospective teachers, prepare them best for the job, reward those who excel, and keep them from leaving the school system are concerns voiced in three of the first four reports.
Such teachers will face an imposing challenge. According to tests of reasoning, analyzing, and inferring, 17-year-olds in 1981 performed at the level of 14-year-olds 10 years ago, notes Dr. Theodore Sizer, whose ''Study of High Schools'' is still to come. John I. Goodlad, dean of the UCLA Graduate School of Education, whose study results are also forthcoming, wants teachers to prompt more thinking.
Two of the fact-finding panels want the curriculum to provide a common core of learning for students. Dr. Goodlad says he thinks the ''climate of learning'' in schools is more important than the curriculum.
For the public, evaluating the evaluations constitutes the first step in school reform.
In its study focusing on teen-agers and high schools, the National Commission on Excellence in Education (NCEE) found the high goals of excellence being thwarted by what it saw as ''shoddiness,'' ''mediocrity,'' and ''dimming of personal expectations.''
The panel made five recommendations, calling for a basic core curriculum for all high school students; stricter admission requirements for college; more school time and more homework; recruiting and rewarding better teachers; and fiscal support by taxpayers.
Another panel, the National Task Force on Education for Economic Growth of the Education Commission of the States, criticized schools for ''not doing an adequate job of educating for today's requirements in the workplace, much less tomorrow's.''
Two of this task force's recommendations overlapped recommendations from the NCEE: finding and hiring better teachers; longer school days and more homework. In addition, the task force suggested that business people be permitted to teach and urged an increased partnership between public schools and industry.
''The nation's public schools are in trouble,'' begins the report of a third group, the Twentieth Century Fund Task Force on Federal Elementary and Secondary Education Policy.
But then the Twentieth Century task force strikes a new direction: the leadership role of the federal government, suggesting that it move from issuing regulations to providing such incentives as a national Master Teachers Program, federally funded, that would recognize and reward excellent teaching; shifting federal funds for bilingual programs to teaching non-English-speaking children how to speak, read, and write English; augmenting the supply of science and math teachers by federal loans to prospective teachers of these subjects; granting federal aid for schools serving pupils with special needs.
In Washington, the College Board, as part of the 10-year Educational EQuality (sic) Project to set national standards for academic achievement in high schools , issued ''Academic Preparation for College: What Students Need to Know and Be Able to Do,'' proposing a core curriculum similar to that recommended by the NCEE plus foreign language and the arts. The College Board report details what schools should cover for each recommended subject.
Of the 20 reports still out, Sizer's, Goodlad's, and a Carnegie in-depth study of 15 high schools are generating strong interest.
Theodore Sizer's ''Study of High Schools,'' commissioned by the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the National Association of Independent Schools, will not appear until fall, but the author has shared partial contents on several occasions. On May 26 he told students at Phillips Andover Academy, where he was formerly headmaster, that on the whole, the country is not serving its youth well.
He admitted that social class makes a difference in learning. He thinks many good teachers have been hampered by the system, that fragmenting learning into subjects like English and math does not reflect the state of modern knowledge, and that students should be grouped according to their level of mastery, not their age.
The Carnegie study focuses on just 15 high schools, which were observed for 2 ,000 hours. This in-depth study is expected to complement the Sizer and Goodlad studies.
Ernest Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation, feels the number of reports shows that people look to schools to solve problems. And they begin with trying to solve problems within the schools.