WHEN Mississippi Gov. Ray Mabus arrived here for the education summit last week, he was already carrying a set of goals for Mississippi schools much like those summiteers had promised to produce early next year. Governors have reflected more keenly than any other group of political leaders the economic urgency of better schools in a global labor market.
When businesses look at investing in Mississippi, ``they ask about teachers before they ask about taxes,'' says Mr. Mabus. ``They ask about students before they ask about roads.''
Since the largest share of education budgets comes from state government - about 50 percent on average - governors are getting a clear message from business about the critical state of education.
The message is that either the level of learning of American workers improves radically or the national economy will go into decline, says Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy.
``Why should employers anywhere in the world pay American workers 10 times as much to work half as hard when we know less than [other workers] do and can do less?'' Mr. Tucker asks.
For Governor Mabus, the summit offered two benefits:
One, it lends force to his battle with state legislators to pass his education proposals.
Two, Mabus, a democrat, now sees his state competing for business against the world, not against other states. National standards can help the whole country remain competitive.
``Mississippi kids have got to compete in the same world Connecticut kids do,'' he says.
Besides, says Republican New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, ``it doesn't do any good for New Jersey to be in the lead if the people around us aren't with us. Forty percent of the people of New Jersey went to school in other places.''
Just how American schools stack up to their foreign counterparts is not well measured in most areas. Where solid comparisons have been made, American secondary school students rank very poorly - both by overall age group and by comparing only the best performers.
As recently as the 1960s, American students were outshone in math tests by their counterparts in other industrialized countries. But American schools then were more universal - a larger share of US youth went to high school, while other countries were testing only a more-select group.
That is no longer true, according to Larry Suter, a statistician at the National Center for Education Statistics. Japan now has an 89 percent high school participation rate, compared with about 75 percent for the United States, using the same criteria.
In recent math and science tests by the Educational Testing Service, American students scored decisively lower than students in other industrialized countries by age 14. In the sciences, Americans were outscored by students from Italy and Korea, among many others, and were clumped near the bottom with those from Thailand, Hong Kong, and Singapore.
A 1982 test that calculated the top 1 percent of math students in each of 17 countries found the top American students at the bottom of the ranking, below those of Hungary, New Zealand, Britain, Finland, or Canada. Only Israel's elite ranked close to Americans.
Educators point out that few countries educate as diverse a group of students, ethnically and culturally, as the United States.
But researchers are just beginning to probe rigorously why Americans do so poorly. According to Mr. Suter, the number of days per year spent in school shows no relation to test scores, the amount of homework shows only a little relation, and the hours per year spent studying math show only a little relation.
``It's got to have something to do with the total commitment to school,'' he says, describing the seriousness with which the Japanese students take their schooling.
Ironically, he notes, the Japanese are emulating some aspects of the freedom to explore found in the American system ``because they admire it and they think we're more creative.''
A sweeping study of reading literacy in 40 countries is underway now. Meanwhile, some American businesses are teaching their employees to read, as well as how to use automated equipment.
State governors, says Mr. Tucker, ``were the people who saw how economics came together with education.''
Says Ray Mabus: ``The biggest problem we have now is for people to understand the urgency, that states aren't competing with each other any more.''