The time-honored response to teacher shortages is to lower standards for entry into the profession. But the only way to make sure the country gets the kind of teachers it needs is to raise them to levels never met before."

That may be the single most pivotal sentence in a provocative report on education that has just been issued by a 14-member task force on Teaching as a Profession, which was assembled a year ago by the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy. The task force presents a forceful argument for a radically different approach to staffing the nation's classrooms and schools, and it warns that if we fail to alter basic educational premises we will create an even greater gulf between those who can support themselves and those who can't.

Several critical factors are currently at play. America is becoming increasingly uncompetitive in world markets. Jobs that require little skill are going abroad while jobs that are here increasingly require high levels of skill and sophisticated, knowledgeable levels of thinking. The talent pool for those jobs is shrinking, however, while the pool of unemployables is increasing. Youngsters are dropping out of school at alarming rates and many are functionally illiterate. "As in past economic and social crises, Americans turn to education," the task force points out in the report.

"There is a new consensus on the urgency of making our schools once again the engines of progress, productivity and prosperity.

"In this new pursuit of excellence, however, Americans have not yet fully recognized two essential truths: first, that success depends on achieving far more demanding educational standards than we have ever attempted to reach before, and second, that the key to success lies in creating a profession equal to the task -- a profession of well-educated teachers prepared to assume new powers and responsibilities to redesign the schools of the future.

"If our standard of living is to be maintained, if the growth of a permanent underclass is to be averted, if democracy is to function effectively into the next century, our schools must graduate the vast majority of their students with achievement levels long thought possible for only the privileged few. The American mass education system, designed in the early part of the century for a mass-production economy, will not succeed unless it not only raises but redefines the essential standards of excellence . . . . "

To pull this off, the task force recommends restructuring the teaching profession and turning it into something resembling a grown-up -- heaven forbid, but there's no escaping the word -- business. Gone would be the divine principal and everyone- else-is-equal bureaucracy, a meritocracy of mediocrity.

In its place would be a collegial system with lead teachers who could be paid as much as $65,000 a year for full-time work. Teachers would be certified by a National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Teachers would decide how to meet state and local educational goals and they would be accountable for student progress. Teachers would have to have undergraduate degrees in liberal arts, not education. They'd have to learn how to think and communicate before learning how to teach. Graduate schools would have to develop new curricula leading to a master in teaching degree, which would require internships and residencies in schools. The teaching profession would be paid in a fashion to make it competitive with other professions that attract smart, capable, independent-minded, thoughtful people.

Along with pay, teachers would have something else to draw them to the profession: job satisfaction. They, not the bureaucrats, would run the schools.

The task force underscores the point that public education is one of the very few fields where there is no connection between performance and reward: the wasteful, bureaucracy-laden school system is not penalized and the teacher who takes homework home to grade is not rewarded. It also makes the point that more than a million teachers will have to be replaced in the next seven years.

A great many observations that the task force makes about teaching and education apply to many other aspects of American industry and labor- management relations. And, as with many others, genuine reforms hinge on school boards and teachers unions cooperating and on parents, school administrators and everyone else involved being willing to try fresh, new ideas. The best of which is at the core of the report, and that is to make teaching one of the truly fun, great jobs to have.