The teaching of children once was considered a respectable, even special, calling. Although society never put its money where it put its mouth, the profession always seemed to attract the best and brightest--particularly among women and minorities, many of whom had difficulty finding any other kind of job.

But in the late 1960's things began to change. Inexorably, it seemed, the quality of our children's education began to slip. And with it slipped the quality of our children's teachers.

Last week, Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell confirmed the worst: the honorable profession of teacher is now the haven for some of the worst and the dullest. Many educators are being poorly educated and licensed, he said. Adding to the problem is that few economic incentives are offered to encourage older, better teachers to remain in the profession.

What can be done?

One of Bell's suggestions is remarkable for its simplicity and merit: reinstitute teacher competency testing as a requirement for hiring. It's a once discredited idea whose time has returned.

There were legitimate reasons for the general languishing of teacher testing a decade ago. The National Teachers Examination was shown to disqualify a disproportionately high percentage of nonwhite applicants while giving passing marks to a disproportionately high number of white applicants. Critics charged cultural bias, claiming that the tests were skewed in favor of the dominant culture. As a result, most states eliminated the NTE as a basis for hiring teachers.

But the certification of teachers as competent to teach in the classroom wouldn't die. Recently, two widely reported examinations of teacher competency in Texas have highlighted the controversy. In one, half of a sample of first-year teachers in Dallas failed a test of verbal ability, while in the other, half of Houston's teacher applicants scored lower than the average high school junior in mathematics.

Such reports might be expected to prompt unanimous expressions of concern over the state of our nation's educational system from those who claim to speak for the teaching profession. Unfortunately, that just isn't so. The National Education Association instead has been arguing that standardized tests for teachers should be eliminated altogether because they "are used by the media as a basis for invidious public comparison of student achievement scores" and because they may be "used to evaluate teachers." Further, NEA says it opposes teacher competency testing because no single test is adequate.

To call for an end to competency tests because they promote a bad image of schools and teachers seems to me to be the wrong approach. A better move would be to consider a proposal by the American Federation of Teachers, an NEA rival. The AFT thinks what is needed is better tests and more testing of teachers, not less. More and better testing, it argues, would eliminate the problems created by requiring teachers to take a single test, problems like cultural test biasing as well as the obvious criticism that tests aren't perfect and that scores from a single test could be misinterpreted.

In Washington, no tests have been given to new teachers since 1969. Hiring has been based entirely on an applicant's college record and an interview. Yet, all school superintendents since the days of Vincent E. Reed have argued that applicants for teaching jobs should be required to pass a written examination in the field in which they want to teach before they are hired.

William Simons, head of the Washington Teachers Union, does not object to requiring such examinations of teachers before hiring. Nor does he object to basic teacher English and math competency examinations. He only asks that no attempt be made to reward or punish teachers solely on the basis of student test scores, and that teachers already in the system not be forced to undergo testing or lose their certification.

It is gratifying that so many teachers themselves want the examination reinstituted. A veteran teacher, who told me she had taken her own children out of the public schools because she did not want them to hear English ungrammatically spoken and written, put it this way:

"Reinstituting standards will solve a lot of problems. Within schools, the absence of competency testing creates divisions between those teachers who did pass the tests and those who did not. The universal concern seems to be for teachers and their rights rather than what is best for the student. I took the teachers exam. I would do it again if they brought it back because I think it would be the fairest possible thing to do . . . .

"Teachers don't deserve a job teaching just because they went to school. There ought to be some kind of standard because we're selling the kids short."

That's the point -- the kids. We should make every effort to give teachers the prestige and the money they deserve. But we should also get something in return:

Like a good education for our children.