AFTER NEARLY a decade of trying to attract better teachers to U.S. classrooms with higher pay, wider competency testing and tougher certification standards, educators remain concerned about the quality of the nation's teaching force.

There is a widespread sense of disappointment in how little those measures and other education reforms of the 1980s, most of which affected teachers in some way, have changed education's bottom line -- student achievement. Expressions of dismay have come from Education Secretary Lauro F. Cavazos, teachers themselves and, most recently, some of the state officials responsible for implementing legislative mandates designed to improve public schools.

"Over 1,000 pieces of legislation regarding teachers were developed during the 1980s, and many of these policy proposals are now being implemented. Yet, studies indicate that the policies developed during the recent 'wave' of educational reform, which mandate improvement in teacher and student performance, have actually had only a marginal impact on the quality of classroom instruction," a study group of the National Association of State Boards of Education observed last month.

"Thus, it would appear that the majority of strategies incorporated thus far have been inadequate and perhaps even inappropriate tools for improving education," the panel concluded.

The study group, led by Thomas Howerton, chairman of the Colorado State Board of Education, cited the same test data that Cavazos had earlier this year. The 1988 results of the National Assessment of Education Progress, a congressionally mandated series of tests, showed almost no improvement in writing skills among U.S. students since 1971 and found most advancement in basic reading skills occurred in the 1970s -- before the education reform movement.

Teachers also appear to be disappointed in this outcome. A survey of 21,389 teachers conducted for the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching found that four out of five teachers graded the 1980s reforms as deserving a grade of "C" or lower. Most teachers surveyed said the biggest change since 1983 had come in their salaries, which have outpaced inflation in recent years and now average about $31,000, according to the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union.

As a result, teacher pay no longer dominates the education agenda, although there have been some proposals for salary differentials to reward master teachers or to ease shortages of mathematics, science and minority teachers. The emerging issue of the 1990s, giving teachers more authority and flexibility, is meant in part to address a longstanding view among the 2.3 million public school teachers that they are not treated as professionals.

There are some observers who see signs of improvement -- or prospects for it -- in the teaching force. David Imig, executive director of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, said enrollments in teacher-training programs have increased 65 percent in the last five years even as colleges were raising the grade-point averages required to declare an education major. "I think this suggests we're having some success," he said.

Driving the enrollment growth, Imig said, is an increase in older students who have entered graduate programs to prepare for a second career. Like the existing teaching force, which is 72 percent female, many of these older students are women. "They're saying they always wanted to teach and now they're going to do it," he said.

Though teacher advocates like Sharon Robinson, director of the NEA's National Center for Innovation, argue that successful teachers need "a passion for learning," in addition to a love of children, the main reason students choose education careers has not changed. Most still enter teaching for the love of children, not for the love of learning. In a recent Lou Harris survey, 71 percent of the beginning teachers interviewed cited a stronger interest in young people than in a particular academic subject.

This basic motivation may be one reason that teachers' intellectual rigor remains in question even though they seem to be generally well-educated on paper. Slightly more than half of all public school teachers held a master's degree in 1986, according to the NEA.But their strongest motivation for obtaining advanced degrees may not be a love of learning: Collective bargaining agreements commonly pay teachers more if they accumulate graduate credits.

Fitful moves have been made to deepen the intellectual content of teacher training programs. A few states, including Virginia, Texas and New Jersey, have limited the number of education courses that can count towards the academic requirements for a teaching certificate. A handful of colleges have converted to five-year programs that require an undergraduate major in a subject other than education and conclude with a master's degree.

Supporters of such moves argue that prospective teachers spend too much time learning how to teach, and not enough studying what they will teach. This criticism has been lodged in particular against elementary school teachers, who take a smattering of courses because they will teach several subjects.

Despite the unflattering appraisals that some college students give education courses, education practitioners say knowledge of subject matter is not enough. Robert S. Peterkin, superintendent of the Milwaukee schools, said inability to control a classroom was the most frequent reason that beginning teachers fail in his district, followed by an inadequate command of academic subjects.

The NEA's Robinson agreed on the importance of what is known as "classroom management" in the teaching trade. "If you can't get them {students} organized to learn, I don't care how much you know. You can't get them to learn," she said.

Both the Reagan and Bush administrations have advocated that states authorize nontraditional routes to a teaching certificate as a way to bolster the academic strength of the teaching force. Generally, these new procedures allow college graduates trained in other fields to begin teaching without first taking standard education courses. So far these paths to "alternative certification" have attracted relatively few new teachers.

C. Emily Feistritzer, director of the National Center for Education Information, reported earlier this year that since 1985 only 12,000 new teachers had taken various alternative routes, out of a million who were hired nationwide. About 30 states have provisions for for alternative certification.

Imig, whose organization represents traditional education colleges and departments, said attracting better teaching candidates means realizing a long-held goal of making the career "valued and honored" and well-paid. Though teacher salaries have increased, Imig argues that they have only gone "back to where they were in 1972" in terms of purchasing power. "Those strides haven't been all that great," he said.

Ideally, Imig said, salaries for experienced master teachers would approach the $70,000 a year they receive in Rochester, N.Y. He also endorsed higher pay for scarce math and science teachers as well as for minority teachers, whose numbers are expected to dwindle as the percentage of minority students increases. Currently, minority teachers are projected to decline from 10 percent to 5 percent of the profession as the proportion of minority students reaches 30 percent in the year 2000.

"There are going to have to be salary differentials for minority teachers that are going to cause some tensions in the {education} system," he said.

Such pay differentials would represent a major change, because standard teacher salary scales are now based on seniority and education. Moreover, racial tensions have divided teachers in a number of cities where federal courts mandated hiring preferences for minority teachers to remedy segregation. Salary differentials for minority teachers could create similar disputes.

A recent report for Imig's organization concluded that the economics of choosing a teaching career are different for minorities. Mary Dilworth, the author of the report, said minorities were dissuaded from teaching because they carry higher college loan debts, rely on women to produce a greater share of household income and find testing requirements "present a greater challenge to them."

Dilworth concluded: "The educational community has not offered individuals of color compelling reasons to join its ranks. The often cited reward of being a 'positive role model' is inadequate for most . . . If black, Hispanic, Asian and Native Americans have reasonable assurance that they will be trained, employed and compensated well, consulted with and promoted for their unique contributions, the field will certainly be more attractive."

Those issues fall into the broad category of professionalization and could apply to any prospective teacher, Robinson said. About 45 percent of teachers in the Carnegie survey, up from 25 percent in 1987, said they were dissatisfied with their degree of control over their professional lives. One high school teacher from Connecticut expressed a common sense of lack of respect: "I would like my words to make a difference, but I have learned from experience that the public, boards of education and superintendents will not listen . . ."

Robinson predicted that the situation may change with "the creation of a new professional ethic" that will see teachers more involved in school improvement, curriculum, research and their own continuing education. A small number of districts have experinented with "school-based management," which gives teachers more decision-making authority.

Robinson said that pressure from teachers would spawn more experiments of that kind: "If policymakers weren't serious when they started talking about professionalization of teachers in the mid-'80s, it's too late now."

Imig was more skeptical. "Every time we've had a teacher shortage, we talk about getting more professional teachers," he said.

One professionalization effort widely supported by teachers is the issuance of a voluntary teaching credential from an independent national board, much as the American Medical Association and American Bar Association certify doctors and lawyers. The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, created in 1987, has launched such a project and expects to issue the first national certificates in 1993. States would retain the right to set their own certification requirements.

The Carnegie survey found that 64 percent of teachers supported the concept of a national teaching certificate. The board's own survey of the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers found 85 percent of their members backed the idea. Nearly equal percentages said their main motives for seeking such a national certificate would be professional recognition from the public or the possibility of higher salaries.

Kenneth J. Cooper covers education for the National Desk of The Washington Post.