This is a confusing time for American admirers of China.No two nations on earth are more obsessed with education. And nothing has struck a more responsive cord in the thousands of Americans Peking has favored with visas in the last few years than the Chinese school system.

The Chinese seemed to have installed all the most modern ideas, while PTAs and school boards back home dragged their feet. They integrated practical work with school lessons, deemphasized grades and exams, gave special preference to minorities and peasants and allowed students to participate in curriculum decisions.

Now, with hardly a warning, Peking has simply declared the experiment a failure, and largely junked it. With the speed possible only in a totalitarian state, the Chinese have restored intensely competitive examinations, brought back basic science, literature and language courses, ordered students to do as they're told and stopped saying much of anything at all about minorities.

It is enough to warm the heart of the most conservative member of an American school board. But Americans should perhaps not be so quick to draw their own lessons this time from the Chinese scene, no matter how eerily familiar it seems.

Buried within the record of the Sino-American cross-cultural traffic in this last decade is the old story of Americans perceiving China in their own image, like Gilbert and Sullivan populating "The Mikado" with Britons wrapped up like Japanese. The Chinese conducted tours for their American friends, then went blissfully about their business, neither understanding nor caring much about what the Americans thought they were seeing.

No one quite knows who is to blame for both countries' deciding to try out the same sort of pedagogical experiments at about the same time. The Chinese, unlike the Americans, never even asked questions about what was going on outside their borders. One could argue that all kinds of 20th-century egalitarian impulses operated here, with the ghost of Karl Marx having an effect on both sides of the Pacific, though this theory would leave the Chinese aghast.

Now, though the Chinese want to explain their turnabout, some American educators still don't want to believe it. Mary Berry, the Carter administration's top education official, insisted after a November trip to China that press reports of the Chinese reversal were "premature" and "misleading."

"I don't see the Chinese giving up any of their [egalitarian] principles," she said. "They said they don't want to face another Cultural Revolution in five years and create another kind of elite."

To anyone who has read the reams of recent vehement Chinese attacks on their own school system, seen their new national examination schedule and talked to their education officials, the cold-blooded rejection of egalitarian rights for the peasants and students in favor of test results is unmistakable. Every paragraph giving a brief nod to Mao Tse-tung's warnings about creating a new elite is followed by pages of instructions removing any administrative muscle those warnings might have had. The Chinese need a modern economy, and for that they need trained experts. They want results.

Longtime observers like University, of California professor Susan Shirk say' they were skeptical of the first reports of widespread change but now tend to believe them. Shirk, and several other Western educators, argue that the Chinese have overreacted and will reinstitute some of the reforms after a shakedown period.

"Many of the educational policies of the past decade are, when stripped of their political content, based on principles that have been part of the conventional wisdom of Western education for years," argues John Gardner, a prominent British admirer of Chinese education over the last few years.

The toughness of the turnaround becomes clearest in the "Machenfu Middle School incident," now being used as the symbol for Peking's attack on previous reforms. Earlier, two teachers at the school were criticized severely for hounding a student who had flunked English to suicide. Now, teachers and students are told that the instructors were mostly right and the dead student was sadly misled by political leaders who debunked learning.

The Chinese now tend to heap too much blame on the school policies of the past, and too little on the political power struggle that turned classrooms into battle grounds and had little to do with educational thinking. Elementary schools in China actually operated proficiently throughout the decade, for there teachers' authority was not so severely challenged.

But the universities ended up a disaster area, and some Western admirers are now willing to admit they over-looked something. "It is now apparent that many foreign observers, including myself, were too starry-eyed in their assessments," Gardner said.

While the Chinese reverse course, as many Americans would like some of their own progressive schools to do, many educators will be watching to see what problems the Chinese encounter going in the other direction. One wonders if the American observers of the process will learn any more this time than they did the last.