IT'S a delight for Bob McBain to teach his 10th-grade advanced literary analysis class. Instead of slouching in back-row seats, the teenagers crowd toward the front of the room to discuss 19th-century novels and poetry. Discipline is no problem among these academic achievers headed for college.Unfortunately, as with most high schools in the United States, that is not the full story here in Ashland, Ore. Another recent snapshot would show Vice Principal Marvin Dunn, in charge of attendance and discipline, encountering a young man in the hall. "We'd like you to come in for a talk about your career," he says cheerily. "Huh?" comes the reply from beneath the baseball cap. "Your plans for the future..." "Huh?" "We'd like to discuss whether there's any possibility you could graduate this spring." "Uh... OK." Oregon has just launched an ambitious and innovative public-education reform plan aimed specifically at the one in four youngsters who drop out before they finish high school - and, more broadly, the 70 percent of all graduating students whose formal education abruptly stops at that level. But beyond that, it seeks to invigorate a state-education system that - like those around the country - has seen standardized test scores drop as worry increases about a "crisis" in education, a work force unprepared to compete in a high-tech, global economy. "The Oregon Educational Act for the 21st Century" signed into law last summer reflects the recommendations of a 1990 report by the National Center on Education and the Economy titled "America's Choice: High Skills or Low Wages." The legislation goes beyond the goals outlined by President Bush in April, and it is being closely watched by other states now looking for ways to educate a more productive work force. The plan includes expanding Head Start and other early-childhood programs to cover all eligible children; ungraded primary classrooms through grade 3; performance-based assessments at grades 3, 5, 8, and 10; and the requirement that all students earn a "Certificate of Initial Mastery" at about age 16 or the 10th grade in core academic subjects, plus critical thinking, problem-solving, and communications skills. After that, students would spend two or three years working toward a "Certificate of Advanced Mastery," with emphasis on college preparation or professional/ technical courses and on-the-job training in such areas as business marketing or health services. The plan also includes "Learning Centers" to help dropouts up to age 21 attain the Certificate of Initial Mastery; gives a greater policy and management role to teachers and parents; involves private businesses in developing job-training programs; sets up an "Oregon Report Card" to track the performance of individual schools; allows for parents under certain circumstances to choose among public schools; and extends the school year from 175 days to 220 days by the year 2010. The goal, says state Rep. Vera Katz, the Portland Democrat who was the bill's chief sponsor in the Oregon legislature, is to have "the best educated and trained citizens in the nation by the year 2000 and a work force equal to any in the world by the year 2010." But in explaining the state plan to parents, teachers, and students at the Ashland Middle School recently, state Superintendent of Education Norma Paulus also emphasized that "it is not our purpose to take our five- and six-year-olds and stick them as fodder into an economic cannon." "The goal is that every child be proficient in a basic curriculum, that they be critical thinkers," she said. "So let's keep our priorities straight." The bill passed with little opposition in both houses of the legislature and has the strong backing of Gov. Barbara Roberts. The state school-boards association, the teachers' union, and business leaders around the state also participated in crafting the reform measure. Still, there are serious issues yet to be resolved. A major criticism involves whether students would be forced at a relatively early age into college-prep or vocational-education "tracks." "It will be the poor and the members of the minority classes that will end up going to vocational school," state Rep. Tom Mason said earlier this year. "There are enough biases against the disadvantaged as it is without literally institutionalizing them." But supporters of the plan (who prefer the phrase "academic professional technical" to describe the noncollege program, rather than "voc-ed" or "shop") say this just isn't so. "Students will not be forced into choosing between rigid educational 'tracks' as critics contend," says Mr. Katz. "Instead the built-in flexibility in the system will permit junior and senior students to move back and forth between options, with both paths leading towards college, the workplace, or a combination of the two." THE current system, which provides little in the way of career preparation for the majority who will never earn a college degree (80 percent when college dropouts are included), Katz calls "tracking at its worst." Ron Herndon, who heads the Black United Front in Portland, Ore., and directs that city's Head Start program, agrees and supports the reform plan. Even though the Oregon Education Association (the teachers' union) officially supports the plan, it has strong reservations about some of its key aspects, including ungraded primary classes, "certificates of mastery" instead of the traditional high school diplomas, and the extended school year. It is now holding a series of 22 meetings around the state to solicit teacher comment. With professional educators, there's also the question of who wields power within the state system. "There's going to be some political fun with this," says one union official. Still, says Robert Crumpton, the association executive secretary, "it seems to us to have a lot of possibilities.... We're really pleased about the increased funding for Head Start." Another issue involves Oregon's changing demographics, specifically the large number of retirees moving to the state. High school senior Justin Adams suggested to Superintendent Paulus, when she met with his model convention class, that without children or grandchildren here, older people may not want to pay for school reform, especially if they're on a fixed income. "That is a very real problem," she acknowledged, but added that older Oregonians are also going to need a well-educated and productive next generation. While economists say it typically takes four wage earners per senior citizen to support programs for the elderly, Oregon is likely to have far fewer than that in the future. "We're already down to two," Paulus said, noting that the state is 10th in the country for people over 65 but 42nd for those under 18. THAT is just part of the biggest hurdle, which is how to pay for a program that so far has no overall price tag. Complicating the situation is the fact that voters last year passed Proposition 5, which limits the amount of property taxes that can be spent on schools. As that sum decreases over the next few years, the state will have to make up the difference - which means there may not be much enthusiasm for school reform if it requires increasing state taxes or cutting other programs. In her first major test as governor, Barbara Roberts is engaging thousands of Oregonians in a statewide "conversation" via face-to-face meetings and cable TV hookups to find out what people feel are essential government services and how they want to pay for them. Oregon does not have a sales tax, for example, and this may be part of any new state revenue scheme. The legislature meets every two years, and lawmakers this year budgeted $10 million for the state's prekindergarten program (which is independent of the federally funded Head Start program) and another $10 million on early intervention for those with special learning problems. Such programs, says Superintendent Paulus, "are the cornerstone" of the new state education plan. Since the various benchmarks in the school-reform law as passed cannot proceed without funding, the next financial test of support will come in 1993 when the legislature meets for the 1993-94 biennium. Meanwhile, there is a feeling around the country that this state is leading the way on education for the 21st century. When he visited earlier this year, US Education Secretary Lamar Alexander said, "Oregon, more than almost any other state I've heard about - maybe more than any - has been willing to think boldly, to go pioneering, to recognize that the world has changed."