American rites of autumn are under way, heralded by school bells across the land.
To observers in developing countries, where the wish for education is strong and the resources slim, the American back-to-school ritual appears enviable.
In other, highly developed countries, particularly those where educational policy is set at the national level, observers find many puzzlements in the American system: so many levels and kinds of schools; conspicuous disparities in the quality of education; so much uncertainty about whether ''basics'' means reading, writing, and computing, or socialization, or promoting patriotism, or manipulating technology.
''There is no country in the world in which education occupies a more important place than it does in the United States,'' says Dr. Harry G. Judge of Oxford University, England, in his new study, ''American Graduate Schools of Education, a View from Abroad.''
''It is, arguably, the largest national industry,'' he says. ''Education, organized as a schooling activity, is expected to resolve, or at least to ameliorate, a bewildering range of social and economic problems.''
The goals of American education have always been somewhat extravagant, and they have never been uniform. Confusion between the terms education and schooling reflects the twin-pronged thrust of American society toward preserving historic values and the ensuring the pragmatic functioning of a bustling economy.
To Americans, ''back to school'' means the season in which they renew their commitment to schools as providers of education. Conspicuously missing in most parts of the country this year are the teacher strikes and racial disturbances that disrupted school openings in previous years.
In some parts of the country, primarily the Northeast and Midwest, empty classrooms and surplus teachers confirm projections of declining enrollments made earlier by the National Board of Educational Statistics.
But the overall statistics have little relevance in such states as Texas and California, where continued population growth forces administrators to juggle budgets and spaces to accommodate new and returning students. These states must also this year accommodate children of illegal aliens, beneficiaries of a recent Supreme Court decision affirming their right to tax-supported public schooling.
Whether schools can or should assume responsibilities traditionally centered in the home - such as values clarification and sex education - and those traditionally centered in the church - such as religious devotion, including prayer - concerns not only individuals, but special interest groups, legislators , and interpreters of the US Constitution.
Parental and community standards and religious convictions influence decisions on what the curriculum should include, how free it should be from imposing traditional sex roles, what books should be assigned reading, what books may be in the school library, what films may be shown, what television programs assigned as homework. In many communities, elaborate procedures have been established to safeguard childhood innocency, and the expression of community values through such procedures appears to be gaining supporters (as well as some very vocal opponents).
High on the agenda of many school systems this year is how to provide the right education for gifted students, the handicapped, non-English speakers, and the sometimes-neglected average student. Some parents feel that average students have been most adversely affected by federal initiatives in behalf of the underprivileged.
''But,'' David Kirp, author of ''Just Schools,'' told the Monitor recently, ''quality and equality are both possible.''
Taxpayers increasingly want to know the dollar costs of educational quality and equality. School costs escalate not only because of general inflation (which requires greater expenditures for salaries, busing, books, and supplies), but because of the impact of technology.
In anticipation of the needs of American society when present students enter the work force, schools must devise new programs, purchase expensive high-tech equipment, and compete in salaries with business and industry for the services of the science and math specialists who can use the equipment and train others.
Roy Forbes, director of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and Lynn Grover Gisi, a research assistant and writer, say the ''basics'' mastered by high school graduates of the future will have to include higher-level skills like evaluation, analysis, critical thinking, application, creativity, decisionmaking, and communication skills.
Some communities believe providing these skills is their most important challenge.
But other communities think revival of the neighborhood school is the fastest way to improve education. Since 1954, when the Supreme Court ordered public schools to desegregate, busing between neighborhoods has come under mounting criticism from parents. The concept of the neighborhood school, where children stay close to those who know them well, has gained supporters among blacks as well as whites. Norfolk, Va., one of the first formerly segregated school systems to have met court desegregation requirements, is now proposing to reinstate neighborhood schools at the elementary level. While many black parents in Norfolk support the plan, black leaders generally oppose it on grounds that it is a resegregation device, or because they feel it is morally, constitutionally, and educationally wrong.
While Norfolk considers its options, public opinion in other parts of the country has polarized over two favorite proposals of the Reagan administration: that schools should be under state and local, rather than federal, control; that families who choose private, rather than public, schools for their children should receive a federal subsidy (tuition tax credit) to help them pay the tuition.
The President's effort to eliminate the cabinet-level Department of Education faces strong opposition from school administrators, particularly in the inner cities, which rely upon federal financial aid in a variety of forms. Spokesmen for two strong teacher unions denounce federal disengagement from education as ''anti-education'' and ''antilabor.''
If the federal government backs away, some states can marshall better resources than others to make up the lost aid. The losers in states unable or unwilling to marshall such resources would be school-children - a prospect grievous to many educators.
But many parents and taxpayers object to such federal initiatives as desegregation, mainstreaming (placing handicapped children in regular school classes), and bilingual instruction; they are angry about documented fraud, waste, and mismanagement of federal funds.
The other Reagan proposal, the tuition tax credit, is viewed by those who favor it as a means of breaking the ''near-monopoly'' of public schools and of permitting families to choose the type of school they prefer for their children.
The President himself says, ''This whole measure is simply recognition of the unfairness of people. . . . These parents are willing to pay for one system of education, by taxes, that they do not use at all, and then out of their own pockets pay for another system of education to educate their own children, which relieves some of the burden on the taxpayers. They don't impose on them. And I just think it's simple fairness to give them some kind of break. And, as I say, the economics of it points out that this is benefiting those people at the lower- and middle-income ranges.''
Critics maintain that tuition tax credits would further weaken the already-beleaguered public schools. Stanford University president Donald Kennedy , speaking at summer commencement exercises at the University of Michigan Aug. 22, called upon private and public colleges and universities to oppose tuition tax credits, which, he said, ''sell out the whole notion of financial aid based upon need.''
''We believe the Reagan (tuition tax credit) bill is . . . unfair in the area of economics, in the area of education and also in the area of civil rights, justice, and our nation's traditional separation of church and state,'' says Mrs. Grace Baisinger, Chairperson of the National Parent Teacher Association.
Mrs. Baisinger cites a new study conducted by the Council of Great City Schools and the American Association of School Administrators which indicates that the Reagan tax credit plan and ''new federalism'' budget, combined, would reverse America's traditional support for its public schools, especially in urban areas.
As administrators, taxpayers, and politicians confront these and other education and school issues, their positions reflect deeply felt convictions. The encouraging sign, as they work for an elusive consensus, is that they care a great deal about what happens in ''the largest national industry.''