AMERICAN SCHOOLS will need more than a million new teachers over the next five years, and the easiest way to get them is to lower the present slack standards. That, as a Carnegie Corporation task force vigorously argues, would be a true catastrophe -- and for more than the schools. To get more of the right kind of people will take more money than schools now pay, but it will take much more than that. It will take fundamental reform of the teaching profession and of school systems themselves. To get more of the people they need, schools are going to have to provide better working conditions.

Much of the schools' present character, the Carnegie authors argue, reflects an American economy founded on mass production. The schools were organized to produce routine skills for routine work. If the system was bureaucratic, "the bureaucracy was modeled on the factories in which many of the school graduates would work." But the mass production industries are now migrating to other, less wealthy countries. The United States can compete by dropping its standard of living to meet theirs. Or it can compete by the application of a kind of skill and imagination that American high schools, as they now operate, do not generally produce.

To elevate the practice of teaching, the Carnegie task force would start, logically, with the way teachers are trained. The task force joins the broad consensus that wants to abolish the undergraduate major in education, that enduring symbol of the second-rate. Future teachers, like future lawyers and doctors, need a substantial four-year education in the arts and sciences. Following that, Carnegie suggests a two-year paid internship in the schools, with graduate courses in the summer and increasingly responsible work in the classroom during the school year.

The task force sketches out a school staffed by many levels of teachers and aides -- the newcomers at the bottom and, at the top, lead teachers of superior abilities who take the chief responsibilities. The salary of a lead teacher? Perhaps as much as $70,000 a year, to attract the kind of people who hold that kind of responsibility in other organizations. And at the lower edge of the field, to ensure a basic standard, Carnegie proposes national licensing based on both written exams and classroom performance.

There are excellent teachers in the schools today -- but not nearly enough of them. To get more will not be easy. But it is hard to think of any endeavor that will more profoundly affect American life over the next generation.