Suddenly all the essay questions are being turned in at the same time. Maybe it's the season for this sort of thing. After all, finals are just around the corner and there's grading to be done.

This year it appears that the great American take-home question for the spring semester is about the state of our schools. The answers we are reading are similar enough to suspect a bit of cribbing. First there was the National Commission on Excellence, which declared: "Our nation is at risk." Then Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, delivered his orals on the subject in front of the teachers' union convention.

Next, 41 governors chimed in with the National Task Force on Education for Economic Growth. Finally, the Twentieth Century Fund followed up with its own announcement that "the nation's public schools are in trouble."

By September yet another report is expected from the Carnegie Commission, and no fewer than 24 studies of secondary schools are currently being completed.

The only good thing the rising "tide of mediocrity" seems to have produced is a flood of page-one, cover-story, nightly news attention. There hasn't been this much energy concentrated on the quality of schools and schoolteachers since the Russians sent up Sputnik in 1957.

But none of the authors suggests why we go through these cycles of attention and neglect to academic excellence. After all, there were isolated cries about the dire state of education in the late '70s, just as there were in the pre-Sputnik '50s. Why do we only occasionally feel ourselves in a crisis and develop a consensus for reform?

I don't think it's because of some surprise competition, whether from the Russians in outer space or the Japanese in high tech. Nor do I agree entirely with the governors, who said, "We have expected too little of our schools over the past two decades and we have gotten too little."

We have had great expectations of the schools, but not always as teaching institutions. As Pat Graham, dean of Harvard's school of education and a member of the Twentieth Century Fund group, says, the decline in our academic standards and our attention occurs when "the outside world is asking the schools to do something else. It's quite common for schools to be asked to play many roles aside from simply academic learning."

The "something elses," the list of things we asked of the schools in the era that followed the Sputnik brigade, was not always frivolous. It was long and often honorable. The schools played a role in desegregation and in access for the handicapped.

In fact, a great many Americans rose on that "tide of mediocrity." As Myron Atkin, dean of the school of education at Stanford University, admonishes: "We can't lose sight of how much leveling up there has been."

In this same post-Sputnik, pre-Sonynik era, we were asking the schools to function while authority was being undermined. The confidence of many adults--parents and teachers alike--faltered in the late '60s and the '70s. As Dean Graham remembers, "Schools had been in the posture of telling kids what they should think and how they should act. Their authority to do that was seriously eroded."

This spring, the reports coming out reflect--more than they announce--our enormous discontent with our children's impoverished education. We have cycled back again, after years of neglect and are looking at learning.

A spiral of hostilities between teachers and parents, union actions and government budget cuts may have calmed. At least these reports from all fronts offer many of the same conclusions: attract higher-quality teachers with higher salaries, institute longer school days and longer school years, toughen up subjects and students. There is nothing flashy here, just solid and sensible advice. Authority is back in style; so is learning.

The next question--for extra points, please--is how to keep our attention focused on excellence when we don't have a magical, instant answer. Today, the decline of the American school system has replaced the decline of the American family as our concern-of-the-year. But as graduates of this system, we are known for a very short attention span.