Even before the ink was dry on the new school-reform proposals from President Bush, educators were greeting them with applause. Why? Because this show of White House initiative, almost regardless of its content, was badly needed to give focus to a school-reform effort that had been sputtering.

The new program, drafted by the president's accomplished new education secretary, Lamar Alexander, contains valuable ideas of its own. One of the most promising: New federal grants to encourage school districts to break out of old patterns and try fresh ways of teaching. If you buy the idea (as I do) that many school systems are sluggish and unimaginative, then innovative techniques might pay off big. It is worth giving them every possible chance.What interests me most about the Alexander-Bush package, however, is the potential it has to serve as a catalyst for the myriad school-improvement efforts already at work across the country.

If parents and teachers still complain that American schools are failing their responsibility, it is not because no one has been trying. For most of the 1980s, in fact, America was jumping with assorted conventions, conferences, workshops and white papers that analyzed school weaknesses. Their findings tended to agree that U.S. public schools, in the main, were not able to meet commitments to excellence.

This unhappy assessment, rendered even gloomier when the performance of American pupils was compared with their counterparts in Europe and Japan, triggered a surge of school-reform fervor that is still going on. Where the new directives from the White House can most help, perhaps, is in giving this surge some encouragement, some focus and some direction.

Money is always important where schools are concerned; it is vital to support teacher salaries and any programs out of the ordinary. But when one talks of redrafting an approach to public schools for an entire nation, I doubt that money is the most critical element.

Far more important than more dollars, I suspect, are fresh approaches to the processes of learning and teaching - plus the resolve and the political will to give them an honest try. But this often demands head-on challenges to entrenched educational systems, which helps explain why school reform has proved so tough.

There is no question that, without some kind of reform, there is little hope of improving educational performance. American students routinely score lower on tests than their peers in other industrial democracies. Many high-school course offerings tend to be slack; serious academic challenge seems to be the rule rather than the exception.

Improving performance is what all the hubbub is about. One place to start is by stiffening standards - grading not only pupils but schools themselves. School systems, principals, teachers - and, yes, pupils themselves - need to assume more accountability for the results. Procedure alone is simply not enough. Achievement somehow has to be measured before we can decide whether the schools are improving, and this probably will mean national performance standards.

Scary? Not if coupled with local freedom on how those standards will be met. But only if America insists on better results, on challenging its students to do their very best, and on schools being more than sleepy custodial centers - only when this happens will basic school reform really have a chance.

The new incentives from Washington, if given resounding support, can make an enormous difference. Many of the pieces needed to solve the puzzle of America's ailing schools are already on the board. What they need most is a steady hand to help fit them together in patterns that make sense.