PRESIDENT Bush's education summit with the 50 governors begins today, and the very fact that it is happening is historic. The gathering is a response both to Mr. Bush's vow to be an ``education president'' and to a deeper, long-standing public concern that the health of American democracy and economics will deteriorate if coming generations can't read, write, and think better. It's fitting that the summit is held at the college founded by Thomas Jefferson - the most literate president - who strenuously argued that freedom could only survive through an ever-greater capacity for advanced reasoning and inquiry by what would come to be known as the middle class.
As the governors and Mr. Bush arrive at the University of Virginia, there are a few things to cheer about. SAT scores have been improving. The gap in reading and writing between white and minority students is narrowing. More bright students want to be teachers.
But problems remain. Too many schools are still zones of mediocrity. About 60 percent of high school seniors can't read this editorial critically. Half can't solve an algebra problem. Only 20 percent can write a readable letter.
Everyone realizes there will be no new infusion of federal education funds. Nor - with the exception of a long-overdue increase in preschool Head Start funds - should there be. Federal education money spreads too thinly.
The summit will develop national goals for the year 2000 in areas such as test scores, dropouts, and equity. Mr. Bush will champion school ``choice'' (allowing parents to choose among competing schools, which can create better academics and equity). Choice deserves a broader test.
There's talk of loosening federal regulations tied to aid in order to allow for innovation. Try it.
Bush can urge states to adopt the national teachers exam. He can urge states to report local statistics to identify problems early. He can support teaching common culture, as does educator and author E.D. Hirsch.
Yet beyond policy shifts, deeper attitudes about the enterprise of education also need to change to win the battle against mediocrity. A crucial though rarely discussed shift has to do with attitudes about work and education. The summit could do much by urging everyone to be more honest about the kind of serious effort it takes to excel in math, science, English, and history.
As a math teacher reports to us from the trenches, ``It isn't that kids today are dumber; they aren't. It's that they don't want to work and their parents don't mind.''
A useful post-industrial motto reads ``Don't work harder, work smarter.'' This assumes hard work as a given. In schools, that isn't always the case. There's been a steady decline of the work ethic (less homework) and a steady increase in schemes that sell education as something that's fun and easy.
Such trends lead to the kind of results seen in a recent international comparison of 13-year-olds in math. American students scored last. Yet 63 percent also felt they were ``good in math.'' Ironically, US kids scored last in actual performance, but led the world in thinking they were good.
Studies show that while American parents tend to believe that ability is inborn, Japanese parents take the more egalitarian view that ability is something that comes with work and effort.
We're not knuckle-rappers. Nor are we trying to invoke the spirit of Mr. Gradgrind, the Dickens character who tyrannizes London's youth with rote facts. The creativity and playfulness that encourage love of learning are critical. But learning the habit of hard work - the ability to follow a problem until the breakthrough comes - will do more for real learning and student self-esteem than dozens of new policies, curriculum changes, or computers.
This idea runs counter to peer culture - and society's demand for amusement. Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell shrewdly notes that for youth today, a failure to be seen having fun lowers one's social status and even self-esteem.
Some studious black inner-city kids are ostracized by peers for ``acting white.'' Such problems must be faced. The need remains to work harder as well as smarter in education.