THIS week's reports on educational progress in the United States contain nothing very surprising. We all suspected there's a lot of work ahead to improve learning in the country's thousands of public schools. No one could have expected that test scores were advancing at the same rate as all the talk about school reform over the past eight years.The reports coming from the US Department of Education and the National Education Goals Panel reflect a commitment to set standards for measuring students' abilities. The findings indicate some progress - a lower high school drop-out rate, for instance - and a lot of continued mediocrity in math, science, and reading. Standards of measurement are fine; they have to be set. But research and data-gathering should not become ends in themselves, absorbing more would-be reformers' time and resources than they warrant. It's been said before, but the reform that counts happens in the classroom. It has less to do with meeting standards set in a distant hall of government than in seeing to it that a child does this week's homework. The rapport between teacher and student - the understanding of what's expected and the expectation it can be done - is the engine of educational progress. It's fueled by personal commitment, support within the home, the critical backup of local institutions like libraries, and finally by the awakened interest of kids themselves. They have to be guided toward the discovery that learning is less drudgery than adventure and that self-discipline is liberating. High sounding words - and hard to live up to when budgets are being slashed in school districts across the land and the local politics of education are turning shrill. But back in the world of the classroom, where teachers set their own standards, the dynamics are fundamentally unchanged. Good teachers are the heart of educational progress. They need to be recognized and supported. That work can be aided by federal reports. But the fundamental responsibility rests on the states and localities. That's where the critical decisions are made.