Education is America's biggest industry. One in 4 Americans is directly involved in United States school or campus life: 44 million grade and high school students, and 12 million college or university students, plus 6 million teachers, administrators, and support staff.
That's more than 62 million people in all - not including parents, spouses, or children of schoolgoers, students in various community and special-purpose learning programs, textbook publishers, and so on who have an interest in the education system.
More than $240 billion will be spent on formal education alone at federal, state, and local levels this 1984-85 school year. For most municipalities, the school budget is by far the biggest local expense. For families facing college tuitions of $8,000 to $16,000 per child this fall, education rivals the home mortgage as the commanding household expense.
At the personal level, nothing is more dear to families than the progress of the young. This partly explains the public exasperation with school performance in recent years - the earnest desire that youths get a good start in life. But education is no longer just for the young. The return of mature Americans to school has sustained enrollments in higher education as the numbers of younger Americans have ebbed somewhat.
More broadly, education is fundamental to the American dream: If one studies hard, applies himself or herself, advancement is at least possible if not guaranteed, Americans have believed. Public discontent over the schools in recent years - when individual economic gains were halted by energy costs, competition from abroad, inflation, and high interest rates - was partly due to a concern that schools were no longer up to the job of preparing youth for evolving economic circumstances.
The influence of schools on a culture - on its moral tone, aspirations, values - is underlined by today's intense public debate over issues like organized prayer in the classroom or the proper emphasis on athletics.
The education system is a leading edge of social change. Consider that this fall slightly more than half the students on campuses will be women. This movement toward equality of gender in educational attainment has occurred within the past two decades. Its ramifications for society have only begun to be recognized. It means, for one thing, that where once property - a family farm, material investments - was considered a primary legacy, today's greater numbers of professionally trained households consider an education for their young the best provision for dealing with an economically fast-changing world. With the regrettable instability of marriages, an education appears especially crucial for women, whereas it was once considered an option.
Change is needed - and indeed is coming - in America's schools. But it hardly helps to consider the schools negatively.
Consider what the schools have endured in this past generation alone: the affluent life-style binge of the '60s, the brunt of desegregation orders, a black-militance phase that divided faculty and students in city schools, the unionization of faculties, enrollment declines, and rising costs.
Schools are under continuing scrutiny. Report after report gives them failing grades. Teacher training is the latest target. But how realistic is some of this criticism when some of the most prestigious graduate education schools no longer train teachers? What is needed in the classroom more often is a liberal education, not special subject training, to deal with the demands of a classroom with such diverse student attitudes and family circumstances.
Among the healthy signs: The American Federation of Teachers has begun to take current public criticism constructively, trying to improve teacher performance standards. The National Education Association is now airing ads that stress the examplary kinds of teachers that are still to be found in America's schools.
With the traditional Labor Day start of the academic calendar, Americans should appreciate the good their schools are now doing; they should patiently, prayerfully support the progress that the education system yet must make.
After all, the schools perhaps more than any other institution reflect the character of the community itself. The schools are not a ''them''; they're an ''us.''