Boston — Education Secretary Terrel H. Bell sizes up the mood of the American public toward school reform with this conclusion: ''There is more public readiness now to support major reform in education than there has been in several decades.
''What would be a great loss, though,'' Secretary Bell said in a telephone interview, ''is that if next January, when the 50 governors give their state-of-the-state addresses, they can't take full advantage of the opportunity for reform because they sense teachers have taken just a labor-management position.''
Teachers have received a good deal of criticism from the Reagan administration as it seeks to direct the debate over public education in the United States.
Last week, for example, President Reagan took the two major US teachers unions to task at their annual conventions over the issue of merit pay.
But leaders of the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) say they see a silver lining in the controversy: Mr. Reagan has put education on the national agenda in a way they never could.
Educators in and out of the unions point to four areas where progress on school reform is being or needs to be made.
Status of teachers. ''If quality education is to become a reality, the image and performance of teachers must improve. Our education system is at a crossroads, and our whole public system could fall apart or restore itself on this issue,'' says AFT spokesman Scott Widmeyer.
Secretary Bell agrees. ''The key to better education is higher quality teaching. Somehow, the peer-review system that exists in higher education must be worked into the elementary and secondary level. This is one sure way master teachers will be developed and rewarded.
''I am encouraged by the response of the AFT to the master teacher idea as discussed last week at their convention. I am encouraged the NEA did not close the door on the master teacher idea at their convention,'' says Bell.
But the NEA's Gary Watts, director for organizational development for higher education, says his organization will consider a ''ladder plan, not a pyramid plan,'' on the concept of merit pay.
''In a pyramid there are only so many people at the top and the base is very heavy,'' he explains. ''In a ladder, everyone can work their way up the pay scale. We won't accept parents saying, 'I want my children only with the top 7 percent teachers.' ''
''Teachers do need to have their salaries raised, but they have to know their subject matter today, not 10 or 20 years ago,'' says Carl Marmburger of the National Committee for Citizens in Education, a former New Jersey education commissioner. ''The unions have to make it clear that they have stopped just organizing and decided, 'What about kids education?' As long as they are caught in the private-sector collective-bargaining syndrome, they won't have the public's respect.''
School finance. At present, less than 8 percent of local school budgets comes from Uncle Sam. Concerns center on how much quality education more federal money would buy, and whether it would mean more federal control over curriculum and hiring.
Education groups are quick to note that schools' financial problems were not considered in the report, ''A Nation at Risk,'' by the President's National Commission on Excellence in Education.
''When the administration talked about better defense it automatically talked about more money. It knows there is no free lunch. It has to be the same for education,'' says Thomas Shannon, executive director of the National School Boards Association.
''There is a legitimate need to fund our national interest in education,'' says Gary Marx of the American Association of School Administrators. ''Equity issues, especially for those who are new to our country and not competent in our language, are appropriate areas of federal involvement.
''We are a mobile society. If a student is not educated well in one state, and his family packs up and moves to another state, he brings that problem along with him,'' Mr. Marx adds.
The Reagan administration stresses that state and local governments must pick up most of the tab for schools.
''As we talk about more federal money, we must include right up against this issue the fact that we are running some enormous deficits,'' says Secretary Bell. ''With the final phase of the 25 percent tax reduction in place, the opportunity is there for state legislatures if they want to spend the money.'' Since most states prohibit deficit spending, he adds, ''this brings discipline to the whole process.''
Academic standards. Addressing the AFT convention in Los Angeles, President Reagan called for more rigorous courses in academic subjects, greater emphasis on math and science, as well as protection for teachers from classroom violence to provide the necessary climate for learning.
''The public wants to support the public schools if the quality control is there,'' says the AFT's Mr. Widmeyer. ''That is why we are behind standardized testing of students and teacher testing [for employment and periodically during their careers]. This is one sure way to offer proof that makes the public schools more attractive, more effective.''
The NEA adopted an action plan for academic excellence at its convention. ''We now can support testing in a total context,'' says Mary Hatwood Futrell, NEA president-elect. In the past, the NEA raised objections about cultural and racial bias in standardized tests and their use as the sole means of gauging student achievement. ''We helped that situation change. Tests are seen in a total context, [in] a fairer and more equitable light in 1983 than they were in 1973.''
Parents. ''It is going to be imperative to get parents and their busy lives reinvolved in schools,'' says Lee Hay, the National Teacher of the Year and father of two. ''Schools traditionally reinforced the discipline of the home. Now, too often, schools are expected to create the discipline and get the home to support it. Teachers, parents, and administrators have to turn this around.''