After years of turmoil and confrontation, of failed revolutions and sliding student performance, the Washington school system has settled down for a time of quiet and optimism under its first home-town superintendent in almost a decade.

Among its 126,000 students the problems of low achievement, poor discipline, and poor attendance are still widespread, and superintendent Vincent E. Reed acknowledges them.

Since Reed took office 14 months ago, the system's administrative problems - which caused massive mistakes in payroll records, undelivered school supplies, and overspent budget allotments - have been reduced substantially.

The D.C. school board, long a center of drama and controversy, has settled into an inconspicuous routine.

"No news is good news," said school board member Carol Schwartz, "and I really believe that is true in this case. All of us [on the school board] are aware that enough is enough and there are far fewer complaints about how the schools are running than there used to be."

In interviews over the past two weeks, teachers, parents, principals and others concerned with the schools - including a few who privately criticize Reed - generally agreed that the present calm in the city school system is much better than the previous ferment.

Many said the system hadn't been so well organized and administered since 1967 when Carl Hansen, who had been superintendent for nine years, was forced out of office.

In the eight years between Hansen and Reed, Washington had three school superintendents - William Manning, Hugh Scott, and Barbara Sizemore. All were brought from out of town after elaborate searches and with considerable fanfare. All were fired or denied reappointment. Amid the tumultuous changes, Benjamin Henley, a long-time D.C. administrator, served twice as acting superintendent for a total of 18 months.

"We still have a lot of problems, but people have a sense that he [Reed] is returning to the business of educating children," said John Warren, the only school board member to vote against giving the superintendent a permanent appointment last March.

"What alternatives are there at this point?" Warren added. "How many times can a school board go through this again? It's like buying three bad cars in a row. Comes the fouth time, there's no equity left."

Reed has spent 20 years in the Washington school system, starting with seven years as a junior high shop and family living teacher. He was named acting superintendent on Oct. 9, 1975, replacing Mrs. Sizemore after a bitter 10-month struggle to fire her that was marked by disruption at board meetings and harassment of her foes.

In her fight to keep her job, Mrs. Sizemore characterized her opponents as white racists and black dupes. She said the underlying reason for their criticism was opposition to her efforts to reshape the Distric school system, which she said, was still "designed to benefit affluent white Anglo-Saxon Protestants," even though 95 per cent of its students are black. Repeatedly, Mrs. Sizemore called for an innovative, "multicultural" curriculum that would de-emphasize European history, music, and literature, and prepare black students to "recognize social and economic injustice."

Hampered by administrative and personality problems, Mrs. Sizemore failed to develop a new curriculum and put it into effect.

Both Reed's rhetoric and goals are more modest, and he hardly ever talks about race at all.

"We are not trying to do anything fancy," the new superintendent told a congressional hearing last year. "We want to teach our youngsters essential skills. We want to teach them to read, to write, and to reason. We want to teach them to solve problems.

Later, in an interview, Reed asked, "What do you call innovation? If the kids can read and write, that's an innovation, because that's different than what we have now . . . What we need are students wo can live in this country and move through this life and make a contribution."

Reed said his first priority had to be getting the school system managed better, because unless that was done no major improvement in education could begin.

According to teachers and principals, as well as union representatives and staff experts in Congress and the City Council, the management of the school system has in fact improved substantialy since Reed took office.

For example, in early October, 1975, just before Reed was appointed, about 1,000 teachers complained through their union about mistakes in the first pay checks of the school year. There were about 500 complaints from other school system employees.

In the first pay period this fall, there were only three complaints, union officials said. In the mid-December payroll, there were none at all out of 14,367 persons paid. (The total includes 12,512 full-time teachers, administrators and service workers. The others are substitutes, evening school teachers, and a few part-timers.)

Teachers union president William Simons added that getting books and supplies into schools for the opening of classes also went well this fall, compared to other recent years when there were many major problems.

Also, there has been no crisis this year over keeping school spending within the adopted budget or over hirring within personnel allotments. Former superintendents Scott and Sizemore both allowed serious overspending and overhiring, and then had to curtail program suddenly. Nothing like that has happened under Reed.

In late September, after Congress passed a school budget with $13 million less than the D.C. School Board asked for, Reed, school board members, and school budget officials met on a Saturday at the Dulles Marriott Motel to decide where to cut back programs. They also got suggestions night the board held a half-hour public meeting, and quietly adopted a cutback resolution which accomplished the trimming with no lay-offs.

According to Simons and many others, two men Reed appointed have played key roles in improving the school system's management: Edward Winner, a long-time administrator who was named deputy superintendent after having been down graded by Mrs. Sizemore, and James R. Boyle, a payroll and computer expert from comptroller to take charge of the pay system.

In addition, principals and others who have dealings with them say that the middle level administrators and clerical personnel in school system headquarters on 12th Street NW seem to be working harder now and responding faster to requests although many are still far from being models of bureaucratic afficiency.

Reed said he walks through most headquarters offices about once a week, saying hello, asking questions, and listening to complaints.

In midmorning and midafternoon Reed occasionally walks into Woodward & Lothrop's and other downtown stores near school headquarters. During his first few months in office he said he often found school employees doing their shopping, tapped them on the shoulder, and told them to get back to work.

"I haven't seen anybody out shopping recently," Reed said, "except at lunch hour."

School board president Therman Evans said the management and payroll improvements since Reed took office have been important factors in improving the morale of teachers and helping them to their jobs better.

A few of Reed's proposals have aroused dissent, and last spring and summer he backed down on plans and to reorganize the arts school at Western Senior High and to establish a new academic high school in Georgetown.

The superintendent himself if still widely praised from such disparate quarters as D.C. City Councilman Julius Hobson, long a sharp critic of school operations, and Rep. William Natcher (D-Ky.), chairman of the House District Appropriations Subcommittee.

Most members of the school board also praise Reed as a man of energy and common sense.

Over the past year Reed's only prominent critic has been Mrs. Sizemore herself who has accused him in several speeches of being an educational conservative who has promoted too many whites. No one else has joined this criticism and Reed has publically ignored it except to say that most of the people he has promoted have been blacks from within the school systems.

The most conspicuous whites in the school administration are Winner and Boyle. Reed said he appointed them because they were "the best persons I could find for a particular job."

"Listen, if it's a criticim that I'm not going to tell a man I won't hire him because he is white, then I'm guilty," Reed said. "I'm looking for the best people, and I don't worry about whether they're black or white. I don't think this country is going to progress with that kind of demagoguery."

"Reed really treats whites and blacks alike without any problem," said one retired white administrator, "and neither Sizemore nor Scott could do that. He's got a lot of self-confidence, and can use all sorts of people and get a lot out of them. He's not defensive with anybody."

The self-confidence comes from Reed's own experience and success. Now 48, he was born and raised in St. Louis, the 14th of 17 children. His father was an insurance agent who spent long hours collecting the weekly premiums on small policies.

"We were poor but we made it," Reed said in an interview last year. "We had to do without some things sometimes, but we made it. That's why I get so upset when we tell our kids they can't learn because they come from meager circumstances.

"People make the mistake of thinking that if you're poor you've got to have all sorts of problems," Reed added, "but I think you can make the best of what you've got, and be proud of what you are."

In high school in St. Louis and at West Virginia State College, Reed was a good student but not outstanding. "I did my school work," he said, "but I wasn't the kind of kid who got all As and Bs, no way." He starred as a football tackle and linebacker, and was named to a black college All-American team in 1951. He also was a Golden Gloves boxing champion in St. Louis, a 190-pound heavyweight in college.

After graduation, Reed served two years as an Army lieutenant in Korea then went back to West Virginia State as an assistant football coach and physiology instructor.

He started teaching in Washington at Jefferson Junior High in Southwest in 1956. The salary of $3,900 was just 10 per cent of the $39,000 a year he earns now as superintendent, but it was more than he made in West Virginia.

Being an athlete and a coach, he said, was an important experience. "It teaches you discipline and teachers you to give and take," he said. "It teaches you to assume responsibility for your failures . . . You have to learn to get along with people but to be a good athlete or coach you have to have discipline. It's tough."

Reed said his only regular exercise now is jogging early in the morning near his home on upper 16th Street NW. He also occasionally goes bowling with his wife, Frances, an elementary school reading teacher who started teaching in Washington a year after he did. They have been married 24 years; they have no children.

Reed's rapid rise in the school system started in the mid-1960s - from shop teacher to counselor to principal in five years. Since 1969, he held a series of major jobs in the central office, among them safety director, and assistant superintendent for secondary schools.

On the way up, he not only learned how the school system works, but also met hundreds of teachers and principals, many of whom still call him "Vince."

"Vince is a gregarious, 'hail, fellow, well met' sort of guy," one principal said, "and it's still easy to get in to speak with him. He listens to you and he tells you what he thinks with no shuffling and no jargon."

During his first year as superintendent, Reed said he made 187 speeches to school and civic groups. He also visits schools regularly every Thursday. He drives up in his own car without calling beforehand, he said, stops by the principal's office, and then walks around the building.

At the Mamie D. Lee school for handicapped children, Reed said he noticed that the swimming pool was empty. He said the principal told him it had been that way for two years because no one could find a swimming instructor with a degree in special education, which the school system's central office said was required.

"I told her that's stupid," Reed recalled. "We need somebody who knows aquatics. So we got the rule changed, and found somebody in a few days, and now the pool's open."

At another school, he said, he found teacher wearing tight faded blue jeans with a red patch on the back of her pants. "I sent her out to change into something else," he said.

Reed's relations with the D.C. School board also seem to be smooth. At public meetings his reports are brief and he speaks quietly and the board members themselves, unlike in times past, do little wrangling. Board members said most controversial questions are discussed first at private board conferences, where Reed is forceful and candid.

"When we make formal decisions, that should be public," Reed said, "but I don't think it is necessary to run the school system through the newspapers. This administration has tried to be democratic, but we must let things keep moving, and not let them stalemate because of rhetoric that does no good for anybody."

Most members of the school board like the way Reed deals with them, but two or three complain privately that he is trying to dominate the board.

Reed has far less impact so far on teaching and learning in the schools themselves although there seems to be a widespread willingness, not to expect great changes in these areas quickly.

"People have learned that the problems of the schools cannot be solved overnight," said Eugune Kinlow, chairman of the community school board in Anacostia, "and Reed benefits from that understanding."

Reed has promised to draw up a new curriculum emphasizing competence in basic skills, but the effort is moving slowly through a large committee of planners.

James Guines, the associate superintendent in charge of the project, said that over the next three years the school system hopes to set specific performance objectives for each unit of every subject, and to establish system-wide tests to make sure students have mastered them before they move ahead.

Reed's reports and what the new curriculum is supposed to achieve stress "excellence, efficiency, and effectiveness." This contrasts with the emphasis on personal expression, ethnic identity, and community involvement, which marked the educational reformers of the late 1960s.

Reed and his planners have not yet adopted firm positions on grading, grouping, testing, and promotion policies - the issues that prompted tough opposition to two of his predecessors, Hansen and Clark.

Even many of those who support the way Reed seems to be moving say that so far there is more rhetoric involved than substance.

Reed and Guines say the curriculum project is deliberately moving carefully. They note that representatatives of the teachers' and principals' unions are on the planning committee to try to make sure that whatever it produces has wide support within the school system and a good chance of being carried out.

Meanwhile, Reed also has not yet made recommendations on two other controversial issues were the school board says it wants to take action: trying to change the equalization plan ordered by Judge J. Skelly Wright and starting a tough academic high school. The superintendent is supposed to submit proposals on both issues by the end of February.

Reed has largely kept intact the administrative decentralization plan carried out by Mrs. Sizemore. The six regional superintendents she created have considerable authority, diluting the superintendent's own power but also deflecting criticism.

Reed has encouraged the policy of extending some elementary schools through eighth grade, which started under Mrs. Sizemore.

Although school programs generally haven't changed under the new superintendent, he has changed what is emphasized.

At the start of every school board meeting the superintendent gives awards - to teachers and schools with special projects, to science fair winners, assay contest winners, scholarship winners, and other outstanding students.

Reed said he sends personal letters each semester, congratulating every students who made the honor roll with all As and Bs in the city's 42 junior and senior high schools. So far, he said, he has signed more than 1,600 of these letters because he wants the students who do well to know that what they do is valued.

How to get more students to do well, Reed says, is his main problem.

Early in December Reed visited a classroom of first graders, who were excitedly calling out the words they could recognized while learning how to read.

"So many of the young kids are enthusiastic," he said as he left the room. "But what happens to them when they're 13 or 14? Something kills them, and it kills me too. We're working on it, but we don't know. We still don't know what to do."