State legislators were warned today by elements of the education establishment to watch their step in prescribing remedies for the nation's schools.

Spokesmen for teachers, administrators and school boards told the National Conference of State Legislatures that the money and leadership for improving American education will have to come from the states. But the legislators heard sharply conflicting advice on how far they can go in redesigning curriculum requirements and education standards without making a bad situation worse.

Joanne Goldsmith, president of the Maryland Board of Education and of the National Association of State Boards of Education, said there is "justifiable alarm" among educators about legislatures ordering changes in curriculum.

While science, mathematics and a return to the basics are fashionable today, she said, past legislative mandates to teach all students something about such varied subjects as private enterprise, agriculture and life-saving techniques have resulted in "a random piling on of courses that . . . create classroom chaos."

Michael O'Keefe of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching agreed that "the curriculum has been dramatically overloaded" by such legislation as the requirement in two states that schools "teach kindness to animals."

But O'Keefe urged the legislators to do the curriculum-weeding themselves, saying that elected officials and not just professional educators "need to define the goal of education and then judge how well schools are meeting it."

"You have to go beyond emphasizing the core curriculum and look behind the course labels," he said. Citing cases of English classes in which there is no writing requirement, O'Keefe said many "core courses" fail to teach the skills that employers and colleges recognize as essential in the changing economy.

Michael Timpane, dean of Columbia University Teachers College, warned that "very difficult choices lie ahead" in restructuring the schools. "If you require more math and science," he asked, "what are you going to eliminate? It's easy to say drivers' education. But what about music and art or vocational education? The choices quickly get very hard."

Education is the main topic at the annual meeting that has drawn 3,400 legislators and their spouses. There have been overflow crowds at all the panels reviewing reports of the national commissions that have warned of mediocrity in the schools.

This morning, the heads of the two major teachers' unions, Mary Hatwood Futrell of the National Education Association and Albert Shanker of the American Federation of Teachers, were applauded as they promised to work with the states in devising tougher standards for teacher accreditation and methods of giving extra pay to superior teachers.

Both warned that education improvement will cost money, and that most of it will have to come from state taxes. "A fact very few people want to face," Futrell said, "is that we're not going to have excellence in education unless we pay for it."

"The most important question of standards you face comes on the day you hire a new teacher," Shanker said. "You should know that if you are hiring at $11,000 a year, you're mostly getting illiterate, incompetent people."

The legislators, many of whom already have grappled with pay questions in their states, seemed most concerned about what they should and should not do to change the substance of the school curriculum. California state Sen. Gary Hart (D), principal author of the sweeping education reform that became law in that state last month, acknowledged his concern about the effectiveness of that program. "It's easy to ask the college preparatory students to take more science and math," he said. "It's a much harder challenge to develop a curriculum so others can learn those subjects."

Houston School Superintendent Billy R. Reagan urged the legislators to keep the heat on educators for what is going on in the schools. "You should pass a truth-in-education law," he said, "requiring every school to publish a profile of itself, its curriculum and student body, its past achievement level, its expectations and its accomplishments."

Without such required accountability mechanisms, he said, schools are unlikely to be able to gain the financial support they need to improve their performance.

O'Keefe, underlining the same argument, said elected officials should look inside "the structures of the schools and see how time is actually being used." He urged them to break up what he called the unspoken agreement between many teachers and their students that "you don't misbehave, and I won't lean on you too hard to learn much."