AS A political reality, the next secretary of education has to be capable of generating enough activity to protect the education president from Democratic derision. The outgoing secretary, Lauro F. Cavazos, was never able to do much about that -- or about much else for that matter. There are many views about the secretary's proper role. Schools and colleges, for example, will look to the next secretary above all to keep the federal money flowing. But a larger responsibility must be filled. Having embarked on a serious attempt at educational reform, the country seems to have lost its compass.

In recent years teachers' salaries have been increased substantially. Some states have tightened high school graduation requirements. There have been improvements in the training and certification of teachers. The results, as far as they can be measured in children's educational progress, have not been impressive. Now comes a series of much harder questions of social usage and social policy.

The country is firmly agreed that youngsters need to know more when they graduate. But it hesitates to impose a longer school year on grounds of interference with families' vacations. The country is also agreed that its children need to read more and to be much better equipped in math and science. But there's not much support for the kind of homework that interferes with high school students' jobs. Everybody sees the need for better discipline in the classroom, but not many schools are equipped to deal successfully with chronically disruptive students. Most Americans are inclined to think that a college education ought to be accessible to anyone ready to do the work, but student aid hasn't kept up with college costs.

A little more than a year ago in Charlottesville, President Bush and the governors held their summit meeting on education. It demonstrated that the governors -- reflecting widespread dissatisfaction among parents and employers -- were ready to entertain deep changes, some pretty radical, in current practice. There's clearly great interest at the state and local levels in finding ways to teach children all that they need to know for their own sake and the country's.

In terms of the laws that Congress has written, the job of the secretary of education is chiefly to look out for the disadvantaged children. That's essential, but in addition the secretary has an unwritten license to become the chief philosopher, architect and goad of the next stage of educational reform. That's the standard for the president to apply in choosing the next secretary.