Vincent Reed sees himself as a practical, hands-on man, and that's how he ran things for five eventful years as Washington's school superintendent. But as assistant secretary of education, he says he's now doing a hands-off job, trying to get federal regulations out of the nation's classrooms.

Indeed, if Reed succeeds, he may do himself out of most of his job, turning over programs he now controls to states and local school systems.

"That's the way it ought to be," Reed said in an interview. "Decisions should be made close to the people they affect. The states should have more flexibility."

Although Reed's stress is much different now than when he was seeking more federal funds as D.C. school superintendent, Reed says his basic outlook hasn't changed. "Local school districts should make the main decisions about the education of our children," he said, "and the federal government should not interfere with that.

"Let me make that very strong," Reed continued. "The federal government should stand by only to assist, not to dictate in any way."

It's been eight months since Reed left his post as Washington's school superintendent, taking advantage of a sizable pension and complaining bitterly about interference from the city school board. President Reagan named him in March as assistant secretary of education for elementary and secondary schools. He was confirmed by the Senate and took office in June.

The new job is far different from Reed's old one. He visits New Orleans and Seattle rather than Anacostia and Brightwood. Instead of abrasive encounters with the 11-member D.C. school board, his relations are friendly with one boss, Education Secretary Terrel H. Bell.

Reed's staff of 556 distributes about $5 billion a year in federal aid, including Title One for low-income children, desegregation assistance, impact aid, and 35 other federal programs. It also enforces federal rules on how the money is supposed to be spent by 50 states and 16,000 local school systems. In Washington, by contrast, the school system Reed headed for five years has about 12,000 employes and a budget of about $315 million.

Still, Reed seems to operate in much the same way he did before. He drives to work at 7 in the morning and often eats lunch at his desk. Visitors come in with few formalities. He greets many with questions about their families and jobs, then asks the practical question of what they want him to do.

"Sure, I miss the school system after 25 years," Reed said. "Now it's the opening of school, and I'm not involved with it. That feels kind of strange . . . . This isn't a hands-on kind of job, you know. But I've been busy, awful busy, and I like it."

"The pressure isn't nearly as great as it was when he was superintendent," said Reed's wife Frances. "But he travels so much, he's still away a lot."

At 53, Reed is heavy-set with graying sideburns, his years as a Golden Gloves boxer and football tackle well behind him. As a hobby, he still fixes clocks and lamps and television sets for friends who bring them to his basement. He still sleeps just five or six hours a night, and he moves and talks energetically. Indeed, Reed looks more fit now than he did last December when he announced his departure from the D.C. schools and accused the school board of putting him through "agony" with bickering, restrictions and political requests.

"He went through a lot," one friend said recently, "and he needed a period of regrouping. He's gotten out of all the cross fire and the limelight and publicity, and I think he's glad to have the school system behind him. He says he is satisfied with what he's doing now and I believe that. It's not a job that calls on him to be a leader as much as he used to be. But I think he might get back to that."

After he quit as D.C. school superintendent, Reed said he received 26 job offers, including the post of superintendent of schools in Chicago which pays $125,000 a year. At $52,750 he earns less as assistant education secretary than the $54,000 he received as D.C. school superintendent, though he now also draws a school pension of about $27,000 a year.

"I took this job because I have a great deal of respect for the president and the secretary Bell ," Reed said. "It would give me a chance to do something for young people on a national basis, and I wanted to stay in Washington. I like this area. I have pretty solid roots here. It's my town."

As Washington's school superintendent, Reed often found out what was going on in schools by visiting them without saying he was coming beforehand. He signed thousands of letters to honors students, wrestled successfully with many of the school system's administrative ills, and introduced a new step-by-step curriculum that started to raise low test scores.

Since he left the system, some of his policies have been questioned by his successors, James Guines and Floretta McKenzie. Nonetheless, Reed has steered clear of local school controversies.

Last week McKenzie, who had been a deputy assistant secretary of education in the Carter administration, one important peg lower than the post Reed now holds, said she wanted to scrap Reed's plan for semester-by-semester promotions based on uniform system-wide standards in reading and math. McKenzie said the D.C. schools did not have enough resources to make the plan work, and suggested that uniform standards be enforced only at the end of grades 3, 6, 9 and 12.

When asked about his plan, Reed defends it as a "sound and workable" way to make sure students don't fall far behind in crucial skills. When he's asked about McKenzie's criticism, he won't comment.

"I'm not getting into that," Reed said. "I think that's a local school district decision for the school board and the superintendent to make. It's their business."

In the interview, Reed also refused to renew his criticism of members of the D.C. school board. "There's no reason to kick up an old fuss," he said. "Let's just live and let live . . . . I don't want any controversy."

Last month, however, Reed became one of three cochairmen of D.C. Citizens for a Better School Board, a new group that plans to support candidates in the November election in which four school board members are seeking new terms.

The committee includes former acting superintendent Benjamin Henley, retiring board member Carol Schwartz, and former board members Julius Hobson Jr. and Minnie S. Woodson.

"I am a citizen of Washington, D.C.," Reed said, "a taxpaying citizen, and I have an interest in the local school board." He said the committee would do research on board candidates and make recommendations. "If people want to accept that information, fine," he said. "If they do not, that is their prerogative also."

Shortly after he quit as school superintendent Reed changed his voter registration from independent to Republican. He said he made the switch because of conviction, not political ambition, but the move attracted the attention of local Republicans who have approached him, Reed said, about running for mayor of Washington next year.

"I haven't made a decision about that yet," Reed said. "It's a long ways off."

Several of Reed's friends said they hope he will run, and think he has a good chance of winning even though Democrats hold an 8-to-1 registration edge in the city.

Last June, Reed's retirement dinner drew about 800 people at $25 a head, far more than D.C. Democrats attracted to their own annual dinner, featuring Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), held the same night. In a Washington Post poll last December, Reed came out first as the local public figure with the most favorable personal rating among Washington residents. The poll placed Reed far above Mayor Barry.

"All he has to do is give the word," one Reed friend said, "and there would be an organization and money out working for him . . . . He wouldn't be running as Vincent Reed, Republican, but as Vince Reed, the man, and the man has enormous support. I don't think the label would mean a thing."

Reed said he became a Republican because "I like the thrust being taken by the Republican Party," in particular its stress that "local school districts and parents should make the decisions about education, not the federal government."

Without partisan references Reed makes the same points in his speeches around the country, pushing for block grants with few federal strings and sounding many of the themes of Secretary Bell and President Reagan. He often embellishes them with his experiences as Washington's school superintendent and his own problems then with the federal bureaucracy.

"I know what it's like for educators dealing with the federal government," Reed said. "I've done it myself."

Reed has had little to say, though, about administration efforts to cut federal education aid by about 25 percent even though his office is responsible for the largest federal programs and his old school system, Washington, received about $50 million in aid last year.

"Naturally, when you're an administrator you want as much money as you can get for your programs," he said. "But the president and Congress decide these things looking at the country's total priorities, and then we have to implement them as best we can within that figure. It's like it was with the school system and the city government."

Reed said he supports Reagan's campaign pledge to take the Education Department, which President Carter formed last year, out of the cabinet. "The services that children get are what's important," Reed said. "That's my concern, and that a certain needy population is targeted."

Scott Thomson, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, speaks warmly of Reed and applauds the cutback in federal regulations. Thomson said he doesn't like the budget cuts, but added: "Most of our members would rather have 15 or 20 percent less money and have the authority to use it as they feel it should be, rather than have 15 or 20 percent more and have rigid guidelines and no say in how it's spent."

Even though she strongly disagrees with administration policies, Warlene Gary, manager of federal agency relations for the National Education Association, also has kind words for Reed.

"He's a good person," Gary said. "You can talk to him regardless of where you come from programatically . . . . But the things this administration is doing are terrible, and Vincent is just falling in line. He doesn't have any choice if he's going to survive in this administration."

Gary said she was particularly upset about Reed's remarks that public school officials should "stop fighting" against private schools and his support for the administration's endorsement of tuition tax credits.

"I find it hard to see the Vincent Reed I know in that light," Gary said. "They must be telling him what to say."

"I say what I want," Reed rejoined. "Nobody censures my speeches . . . . I serve at the pleasure of the president and the secretary, and I support their decisions."