In April 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education fired a blast at American public education, the echoes of which are still reverberating through the corridors of America's public schools: "Our nation is at risk," the report warned. "Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world." The report is shot through with the language of crisis. It sounds a call to arms, to revolution. It might easily have borrowed its opening sentence from Thomas Paine's "The American Crisis": "These are the times that try men's souls."

It is not surprising that such fiery language and emphatic views ignited immediate and varied responses. The best of the current essays on the state of America's public education have been collected in "The Great School Debate," edited by Beatrice and Ronald Gross and "The Challenge to American Schools," edited by John H. Bunzel. Both volumes bristle with controversial, combative, often contradictory responses to the question "Which way American education?"

"A Nation at Risk" delineated the problems facing public education, provided data to support its claims -- 23 million adults are functionally illiterate, Scholastic Aptitude Test scores have fallen drastically, textbooks are less demanding, our students are not performing as well as those in other countries -- and then offered by-now familiar recommendations for all public schools. The report urged schools to: increase graduation requirements and demand that all students take more basic courses in languages, social studies, math and science; raise standards and expectations; lengthen the school day and/or the school year; improve the performance of teachers and raise the state of the profession; increase parental consciousness of and support for the schools.

Several other studies prepared in the past three years agree on the plight of public secondary education. But what is the extent of the trouble? What is the very nature of the problems? What subjects should be taught and how? What are the roles of the principal, the teacher and the family? What are the characteristics of a good school?

Obviously there are no easy answers to these questions. Some educational pundits dismiss the proposals set forth in "A Nation at Risk" and other studies in the belief that they would only create more problems. A longer school day and/or school year would only increase the dropout rate, they claim. More stringent grading systems would only aggravate low self-esteem and social violence. We all want better schools -- but what is a better school for a population as diversified as America's?

These two essay collections offer such an extraordinary mix of opinions in answer to that question that the reader is left reeling. "Weak arguments, poor data, and simplistic recommendations" -- such is Lawrence C. Stedman and Marshall S. Smith's response to the various reports, in particular, "A Nation at Risk." How, Russell Baker wonders, has the tide of mediocrity replaced the window of vulnerability? Ernest L. Boyer agrees with the "teacher who said in exasperation that 'the first step in improving the American high school is to unplug the PA system.' " Everyone has his views of what should be done. The options presented range from the scholarly to the popular, the humorous to the strident, the passionate to the merely casual and seemingly half-cocked.

For what world, many wonder, should our schools be preparing children? By 1990, America will need only 350,000 new computer programmers and systems analysts; on the other hand, "600,000 new janitors and 800,000 new fast-food workers and kitchen helpers will have to be employed by 1990." Which way education?

John H. Bunzel's "Challenge to American Schools," with its 11 essays, is manageable, comprehensible and thematically rigorous. The best of the lot are Robert B. Hawkins Jr.'s "Strategy for Revitalizing Public Education," Diane Ravitch's "Curriculum in Crisis" and Gerald Grant's "Schools That Make an Imprint."

In contrast, reading the Grosses' book is like wandering into a full-pitched battle: volleys from the right, volleys from the left, volleys from the center. The Grosses print in its entirety "A Nation at Risk," summarize the other major studies, and then let the fireworks proceed, with essays by administrators, teachers, students, columnists, reporters, parents, political figures and others. At the end, the Grosses provide a very convenient "Reader's Guide to the Great Debate": brief cameo profiles of the participants, a list of national educational organizations and of the essential documents.

The Great Debate, further fueled by books like these, continues. The call-to-arms has been answered; the battle rages on. Meanwhile, whatever the merits of the debate, public education, what Horace Mann called "the great equalizer of the condition of man," will limp along, proceed forward or fall further behind -- depending on your point of view.