Armed with a broad mandate from the state legislature and a part-time secretary, the Maryland State Values Education Commission has come up with a list of values it wants public schools to promote, but after three years of work it still has not agreed on how to teach them.

"Something's wrong with our present society. Something's gotten very out of joint," said Eugene Zander, a former Democratic delegate from Silver Spring in explaining why he cosponsored the resolution setting up the panel, the only state group of its kind in the country.

"We in the legislature felt there was a lack of discipline in the schools, a lack of decency and goodness in society. We felt the commission might see what the schools should do to inculcate a decent set of values."

But after serving on the 22-member commission himself, Zander said, "I've found out there's a lot more to this than we ever realized. But we're still trying."

One reason for the commission's slow pace, its members say, is its decision not to hire an executive director who it feared might dominate deliberations. But a major factor has been the difficulty of reaching agreement in a controversial area where the role of schools, families and religion is in dispute throughout the nation.

There has also been the problem of moving from broad ideals to specific solutions, and indeed the commission still has not decided whether explicitly making values part of the curriculum is a good idea.

For example, a few commission members favor values clarification exercises in which students respond to personal questionnaires or wrestle with hypothetical situations. One such situation involves people stranded on an island or confined to a spaceship where there isn't enough food for all. Students are told the type of people on board, usually by age, sex, and occupation, and asked to decide who should survive.

Proponents say the exercises help students develop and articulate their own values. But others on the panel attack this approach as destructive moral relativism.

Some commission members want a formal character education program using particular heroes such as George Washington to inculcate desirable values. Others want to teach moral values mainly through classical literature.

There are some on the commission, however, who think school curriculum writers should stay away from values altogether because, under Supreme Court rulings, God and religion cannot be cited in public schools as the reason for upholding them.

To get around these disagreements, the commission first worked out a list of desirable values. It was drafted principally by one of its members, Ernest Lefever, president of the nonprofit Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Lefever was at the center of sharp controversy last year when he was named by President Reagan as assistant secretary of state for human rights. He withdrew after being rejected by a Senate committee amid charges, which Lefever vehemently denied, that he was too sympathetic to rightist dictatorships. But the list of values he drew up for the Maryland commission won wide agreement as desirable or at least harmless.

The list of 18 character and citizenship values starts with "personal integrity and honesty rooted in respect for the truth." It includes "respect for the rights of all persons regardless of their race, religion, sex, age, physical condition, or mental state; . . . a sense of discipline and pride in one's work; . . . patriotism: love, respect, and loyalty to the United States of America, and the willingness to correct its imperfections by legal means; . . . respect for legitimate authority . . . and allegiance to the concept of democratic government as opposed to totalitarian rule." "Who can be against all that motherhood and apple pie?" said commission member Toni Parker of Kensington. "But how do you deal with those values? You can't do it in a destructive, authoritarian way."

Parker, a specialist in remedial programs for Montgomery County schools, calls herself as "super-ultra-liberal" and says she is a friend of Sidney Simon, the University of Massachusetts professor who has written some of the most controversial values clarification materials.

At the other end of the commission's ideological span, Kristine McGough of Columbia describes herself as a "conservative parent" and vividly recounts her successful fight in the mid-1970s to get values clarification lessons out of Howard County schools.

"When I heard this commission was coming along I thought it was a rotten idea," McGough said. "And then I thought I better get on to make sure it doesn't do anything terrible. I still think it would be better if a state commission didn't say anything about teaching values in school. That ought to be up to the parents."

The panel--all volunteers who are paid only mileage by the state--also includes local school board members, PTA leaders, a rabbi, several businessmen, and school administrators. One of its original members was Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, then a professor at Georgetown University. She resigned when she became U.S ambassador to the United Nations.

The panel's vice chairman, Mary Ann Kirk of Rockville, originated the idea of forming the commission and lobbied it through a reluctant legislature. She also heads a nonprofit foundation called the Center for Citizenship Education, whose main financial backer has been insurance executive W. Clement Stone.

Richard Schifter, the chairman, is a Washington lawyer and former president of the Maryland State Board of Education. In the 1960s he was Montgomery County Democratic leader. But Schifter said he voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980, and last year he was named cochairman of the American delegation to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and U.S. representative to the human rights committee of UNESCO.

On the Maryland values commission, Schifter said, he has tried to forge a consensus. "We were able to agree that the first thing we should deal with are the problems people face every day in the schools," Schifter said. "In 99 out of 100 cases it never reaches the point where children have to think about what they would do if they were stranded on an island. But many of them have to be concerned about not stealing, not hitting your fellow student, personal safety when you go to the bathroom."

Schifter said this "social climate" is the prime reason why private schools are flourishing while public school enrollment declines.

"Many families feel that they have brought up their children with certain social norms," he said, "and when they go to school, they pick up something else."

So far, Schifter said, the commission's main conclusion has been that principals play the key role in setting the values of a school. Therefore, the panel said, principals should get more money and status, but their appointments should be limited to a few years, with parents involved in hiring and evaluating them. This last notion drew a blast from the the state's associations of principals for bringing their jobs into "local politics."

Over the next few months, before it turns to values education in the curriculum, the commission expects to issue statements on the roles of teachers, guidance counselors, parents, courts, and social agencies in fostering positive values in the schools. Its reports are only advisory, but the expansiveness of that program has been criticized by the Maryland State Teachers Association, which accuses the panel of moving "well beyond its charge."

Despite the divisions on how to teach values, there are signs of the direction the commission might take. Several commission members who often seem in different camps said they are impressed by the approach of Edwin J. Delattre, president of St. John's College in Annapolis. Delattre argues that public schools should reject both a "moral straitjacket and the vacuum" of moral relativism.

To do this, Delattre said, teachers should use history and literature--from Socrates to "Madame Bovary" and "High Noon"--as vehicles for examining values and demonstrating moral virtue and vice. For example, Delattre suggested that "The Diary of Anne Frank" might be used to show both courage and bigotry.

Commission member Irving S. Hamer Jr., headmaster of an alternative school for dropouts in Baltimore, said the panel should not try "to rekindle a commitment to white, male, Anglo-Saxon Protestant virtues," but he declared, "We should try to get students and teachers to read the literature that really deals with the ethical and moral issues that have confronted man." He sugggested including both Mark Twain and James Baldwin.

"I don't have any trouble with Delattre's approach," said McGough. "That sounds like what they tried to do when I was a kid 150 years ago."

"When you have a controversial issue, you have to go slow, but I think we're pulling together," said vice chairman Kirk. "I think we're involved in a noble cause."