Let me acknowledge straight off that there are some outstanding actual and prospective public school teachers, including many who could, if they chose, pursue other, better-paid careers.

I hear about them from satisfied parents. I meet them in classrooms (including my own children's classrooms) and in teachers' colleges as I travel across the country.

Still, it is obvious--and documentable--that the academic competence of people who choose teaching as a career is on the decline. And it seems reasonable to suppose that that is a major reason for last week's disconcerting (though hardly surprising) report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education: that a "rising tide of (academic) mediocrity threatens our very future as a nation."

The academic ability of present and future teachers is, of course, not the only reason for that rising tide. The widespread abandonment of rigorous standards for students contributes to the threat. So does the deterioration in classroom discipline, parental involvement and respect for teachers.

But we can hardly expect public education to improve even to the levels of a generation ago, let alone reach the new heights demanded by an increasingly technological society, if the quality of entering teachers continues to decline.

It would be interesting to plot the decline in public school academic achievement alongside the increase in job opportunities for women. My guess is that there is a significant correlation. There was a time when the brightest of women became teachers because they could not hope to become doctors, engineers, lawyers, technicians and government or business executives.

That the brightest college women no longer look to careers as teachers is evident in the findings of the American College Testing Service. Of 19 major fields of study analyzed by the ACTS, education majors ranked 14th in English ability and 17th in math ability.

It may be that some of the brighter students would choose careers as teachers if teaching had the respect it once had. But the trend won't be reversed in any significant way until we start paying teachers at levels commensurate with what these brighter students could earn elsewhere.

Scott Thomson, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, makes just this point, noting that, three years ago, when Japan was just starting to put new emphasis on education, teachers were given a 25 percent salary increase. If Americans are serious about wanting to improve public education here, he said, "they must also be ready to make that kind of financial investment."

Thomson also stresses, as does the national commission's report, that the push to improve education cannot be limited to the schools. Parents must support tougher standards of performance and discipline; business must find ways to join in, both by lending technicians to teach part-time in the schools and by providing summer employment for teachers. And closer to home: "Many newspapers run the photos of every player on the all-metropolitan football team; how many papers run the photos of every honor student?"

But better pay for teachers may be the clearest statement of support for improving education and the quickest way of achieving it. The first beneficiaries of the higher salaries would of course be the present-day teachers, including the incompetents who have shaken our faith in public education. But that would be a price worth paying if the result were to get more of the very brightest college students into teaching, providing real options for school personnel officers who, as things are now, often are stuck with choosing the best of the duds.