Acting D.C. School Superintendent James T. Guines announced yesterday an ambitious plan to recruit 1,000 volunteer "tutors" from the business community to work side by side with city teachers to help reverse the high rate of failures among the District's first to third graders.

Guines tapped former City Council chairman Sterling Tucker to be the unsalaried director of the project, which he expects to begin in about a month. School authorities asked Tucker to head the project because, as Guines put it, he is "available," having recently left his job as an assistant secretary at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and also because he directed a similar volunteer project geared toward junior high school students when he was with the Washington Urban League in the 1960s.

Code-named Operation Rescue, Guines' project calls for volunteers to work four hours a week, usually side-by-side with the classroom teacher, to give more individualized help to some 10,000 first, second and third graders who failed to master enough reading and math skills to be promoted at the half-year point this month. Because of teacher cuts this year, most elementary school classes have at least 28 pupils in them.

Despite the teacher shortage, the school system this year launched a new "pupil progress plan" whereby students must demonstrate they have mastered a specific number of skills in reading and math before they are promoted at the midyear point and at the end of the year.

The plan called for the students who fell behind to receive extra help so that they would not have to be retained a full year in the same class. Of the 21,538 students in grades one through three, 10,646 failed to master in either reading or math or both subjects. The plan will be extended to grades four through six next September.

Because of the shortage of both teachers and funds for additional teaching materials, Guines said school officials decided they must seek unpaid volunteers to serve as teacher aides. Tucker said he would consult with teachers and principals this week to determine what qualifications the volunteers will be required to have.

Tucker, who currently operates his own consulting firm on Connecticut Avenue downtown, ran for mayor but lost to Marion Barry in 1978 and is considered likely to run again in 1982. Some political observers speculated yesterday that Tucker's willingness to head the pupil-rescue project may be motivated in part by its high public exposure in these months before the mayoral comapign opens next year.

"This in no way should detract from the plan itself, but I think Tucker is definitely looking for a visible thing" to buoy his mayoral chances, said one high-ranking school official, who asked not to be identified. He added that Tucker seemed to school officials to be the perfect person to head the effort because "if Marion gets upset about the publicity Sterling is getting, that might spark [the mayor] to do something for the school."

In a telephone interview yesterday, Tucker said again he has made no firm decision to run for mayor. "I would like to keep this [pupil project] separate from politics," he said. "It's much too important an issue in itself. . . . I can think of a lot of easier ways to go about a political campaign than taking on a job like this."

Tucker said he has wanted to "get back into the neighborhoods" and help "revitalize" in them the spirit of community service. "I firmly believe people shouldn't be looking to City Hall for all the answers and solutions," Tucker said.

Guines said that such businesses as IBM, Woodward & Lothrop and Garfinckel's already have expressed a willingness to help in the project. The plan has the endorsement of the School Board leadership and Washington Teachers Union president William Simons, Simons warned, however, that "the union . . . will not accept this as a permanent replacement for the necessary teachers."

School officials blame the teacher shortage and recent program cuts in the system on the mayor and City Council, which cut the school budget by $25 million this year.