PRESIDENT REAGAN'S campaign for better schools, despite its occasional wrongheadedness, does a genuine service. Mr. Reagan is using his bully pulpit to give focus and force to a reform movement that is going to need the active support of a great many people all over the country.

That's why he zips across the country to address a PTA convention here and to recite Macbeth to a high school English class there--carefully disassociating himself from Macbeth's somber view of the world. Not everyone will share Mr. Reagan's enthusiasm for prayer in the classroom as a contribution to education. But in the larger sense he's pursuing the right target. He would like to see American children get more out of their school years--more in terms of the abilities that they need to live and prosper in an industrial society. And if you don't like the Reagan formula, he challenges you to come up with something better.

Mr. Reagan has been talking about merit pay for the best teachers. The National Education Association, the largest of the teachers' unions, can think of several dozen reasons for being against it and most of the Democratic candidates for president anxiously join the chorus. No doubt the NEA is right in saying that merit pay can be distorted to serve the purposes of patronage and favoritism. But does it really mean that there is no way at all to provide recognition and rewards for superior teaching? Sen. Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina proposes a uniform salary increase of $5,000 a year for all teachers, and twice that for those who work in unusually difficult jobs in, for example, slum schools. That is exactly what not to do--to spend a great deal more money on schools without getting anything in return in the way of changes in the structure. In return for money, is it not reasonable to ask for a higher minimum standard? Mr. Reagan is clearly wrong in his suggestions that the schools can be greatly improved without any additional money at all. But it's equally absurd to think that money alone will do everything.

One central subject neglected in this week's exchanges is the deplorable procedures for training and certifying young teachers. In most states they are required as college students to take so many dubious courses in education that it becomes difficult to complete an academic major and, in some of the scientific subjects, impossible. The state colleges' departments of education, themselves frequently weak in academic terms, have become the judges of who is to teach. Higher pay for young teachers can make it possible to recruit more qualified candidates. But again, not much will happen unless there are other and deeper changes in the system as well.