The day has come at last. As she rides in her mother's car along Nichols Street in Norwood, Mass., toward F. A. Cleveland Elementary School, six-year-old Susan presses down the white collar of her new plaid dress one more time and hoists a sagging white sock.
She sinks back against the car seat, not at all sure whether something wonderful is about to begin or whether something unknown may spoil it.
It is always a rite of passage, the first day of school.
The 16-year countdown toward college graduation for Susan and other youngsters entering first grade this September has begun. Liftoff date: June 2000.
Today, millions of Americans who may not know Susan or any other new first-grader are thinking about what these children, who will finish their education just as the next millenium begins, need to learn at school. Their concern is the strength of our country, and, perhaps, the prospects for peace and progress worldwide.
Three pairs of education priorities bob up and down in public favor like teeter-totters, and it's the public that will ultimately determine the kind of schooling these children will receive. At the moment, public preferences seem to fall this way:
* Quality (excellence) is up, and equality (access to educational opportunity), down.
* Institutional mandates (curriculum requirements, for example) are soaring; education designed to accommodate individual differences is slipping.
* The use of sophisticated technology in classrooms is being boosted by parents and industry; advocates of traditional learning are trying to maintain equilibrium.
A precarious balance among these priorities is achieved only occasionally, before the ''ups'' and ''downs'' again trade places. Why is this?
Successes, failures, fads, politics, perceptions, and resources all cause shifts in education priorities.
As implied by the name of the President's National Commission on Excellence in Education (NCEE), public concern at present focuses specifically on quality of education. The emphasis is on raising expectations for students, making sure that they learn more. The commission's recommendations apply specifically to high schools, suggesting that public grade schools have less critical needs.
By contrast, policies of the preceding decade were dominated by advocates of equality in education, ensuring access to education for disadvantaged children.
The federal government in the 1970s attempted to erase disparities in educational opportunity. In particular, it made racially segregated schools illegal and funded programs to help open the doors of learning to poor students and those whose racial, ethnic, or linguistic backgrounds handicapped them. It also provided money to address the special needs of mentally or orthopedically handicapped children and children in areas experiencing the social impact of nearby military bases or throngs of migrant workers.
Three preceding Monitor articles (Sept. 12-14) have looked at how America's public high schools can be strengthened. But the high school can't be separated from the institutions it bridges: grade school at one end, college or university at the other.
Not surprisingly, the same questions pop up, whatever grade level is being considered. They are:
* What should be learned (and taught) to help students realize their full potential as individuals?
* What common understanding do students need in order to help resolve complex issues through the democratic decisionmaking process?
* What job skills should students acquire to help hone America's competitive edge in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation?
* How can we find, prepare, recognize, and recompense good teachers?
* What are we willing to pay for what we want, and are there some resources we have been ignoring?
* How can we make sure that all our young people have access to the best education possible? Would tax support for private schools help or hinder the provision of better education to as many as possible?
* If we can't do everything at once, where shall we begin?
It is, in fact, almost impossible to generalize about the 80,000 urban, suburban, and rural public grade and high schools in the United States. These schools cluster in 16,000 very distinct school districts, managed not by some uniform and authoritative Ministry of Education, such as many countries have, but by 95,000 popularly elected local school board members who serve, for the most part, without pay.
In a large district, the superintendent of schools, who is hired by the board to run the schools, may have several assistants. But in a smaller district, day-to-day authority rests with the school principal, and then the teachers.
Every state has an executive-appointed department or individual who oversees education. That department establishes certification requirements for teachers, thus determining to some extent the caliber of teaching. It also decides what courses count for credit toward graduation, thus determining, within certain parameters, the curriculum schools will offer. And it works out, with state legislators and local school boards, how to apportion state tax revenues and federal grants among the school districts, thus ensuring a degree of compliance with its views. Public wants accountability from schools The costs of education, whether at the local, state, or federal level, run high. In 1983-84, they are expected to reach some 56 million students, fewer in grade and high schools than last year, but near the all-time high in colleges and universities. The federal government will provide about 9 percent of the money needed; states will fund 39 percent, local governments 24 percent, and other sources such as philanthropic foundations, the remaining 28 percent.
Per-student costs vary widely between and within states, but comparisons are difficult because the bases of calculation vary. Some include higher overhead costs; in some communities the dollar has less purchasing power.
Given the high bill for education, the public increasingly expects accountability from the schools. Most people find totally unacceptable, for example, these deficiencies documented in the recent NCEE report, ''A Nation at Risk'':
* On 19 academic tests, American students never placed first or second in comparison with students from other industrialized nations. They were last seven times.
* Average high school student achievement on standardized tests is lower than it was 26 years ago, when the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik spurred concern about America's competitive position in education.
* From 1963 to 1980, scores on the College Board's Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SAT) declined. Verbal scores fell more than 50 points on the scale of 800, and math scores dropped nearly 40 points.
* Average achievement of students graduating from college, as assessed through tests, is also lower.
* Businesses and the military are forced to spend millions of dollars on remedial education in such basic skills as reading, writing, spelling, and computation. The basics: a job for grade schools, not colleges
Where does the teaching of such basic skills as reading, writing, spelling, and computation belong? In grade schools, almost everyone agrees.
And most students do learn these basics in Grades 1 to 6. The problem is that some schools have repeatedly used ''social promotion,'' moving students on to the next grade, whether or not they have mastered the required work.
Such students may not catch up with basic skills in high school, where the emphasis is (or could be) on higher-level skills - reasoning, logic, interpretation. If the high school in turn also condones or uses social promotion, the student may arrive at the job-hiring office or college admissions door still shy of minimal skills. Colleges and universities debate what they can offer a student who cannot read college-level texts or write college-level papers. Most institutions of higher education resent diverting their resources to remedial courses.
Tax-supported community colleges, however, are the fastest-growing segment in public education today. Those located in cities attract the graduates of inner-city high schools, who often have few options for higher education.
''By 1990, minorities of all ages will constitute 20 to 25 percent of our total population, while their percentage among youth cohorts will be over 30 percent,'' says Harold L. Hodgkinson, author of ''Guess Who's Coming to College: Your Students in 1990.''
The percentage will be much higher in the cities, and tax-supported urban colleges and universities can expect their future students, like their present students, to come predominantly from minority populations, many of them economically disadvantaged.
Such colleges and universities must try to fulfill three competing community expectations. They must provide vocational training so students can get jobs after graduation. They must make up for defects in the previous education of their students through remedial courses. And they must maintain a level of academic integrity which will permit their students to transfer to other universities.
High attrition rates and low prestige suggest that many urban-oriented colleges and universities are failing to meet those expectations.
Pastora San Juan Cafferty and Gail Spangenberg, authors of ''Backs Against the Wall,'' say such institutions should resolve conflicts of purpose, rank their priorities, and set criteria for allocating their resources.They urge community colleges to strengthen their links with a wide range of institutions in their communities, to counsel potential and former students more fully, and to counter funding problems with better political lobbying.
Americans are apparently willing to pay higher taxes for educational institutions that offer sound education. A recent Gallup Poll reported that 39 percent of those surveyed said they favor raising taxes for schools. The percentage was even higher - about 48 percent - among those who had read or heard about the report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education. Helping average students without neglect for others
Some experts see a risk in the otherwise commendable efforts by education officials to raise school standards: the possibility that states or communities may draw up a curriculum that strengthens education for most students, but omits provisions for the gifted and talented or for the handicapped.
But present indications are that the public wants better educational opportunities for the average child, who some say has been overlooked by federally designed programs.
Some parents have deserted the public school system, preferring to enroll their children in private, parochial, or independent schools. A survey conducted in Wellesley, Mass., a few years ago, when school authorities discovered one 1 of 5 Wellesley children were attending private schools, revealed that parents believed there is a lack of caring in public schools as contrasted with private schools.
Some Wellesley parents thought the public schools permitted children to act contrary to their home training - and get away with it. Others felt that gifted and special-needs students monopolized the teachers' attention and that average students got lost in the system.
Some states, such as Vermont, use tuition vouchers, which parents can apply toward payment at any school they prefer. President Reagan has backed a limited form of tax reduction for parents of children in nonpublic schools, but so far the idea has been thwarted by concern that the principle of separation of church and state would be violated if religious schools received tax money, even indirectly.
The newest question facing schools is how much use to make of computers in education. While even first-graders manipulate the technology with enthusiasm, critics worry that relationships between teachers and students, and among students themselves, could be sacrificed if there is heavy reliance upon machines as a means of instruction.
In addition, the high cost of the new technology gives pause to some school officials.
Clearly, the challenges facing public schools are formidable. Faced with them, some people are tempted to look back to a simpler time and proclaim that schools of an earlier era should be replicated today.
But the countdown for the next millenium has begun for children like six-year-old Susan and her peers. It may not be easy to figure out what kind of education they need, and whether higher expectations, stricter standards, better teachers, or finding equilibrium between conflicting priorities will bring it about. But for the sake of those entering and already in public schools, it is imperative to try.