When I was in the second grade I won the spelling bee in Miss King's class at Abraham Lincoln School. I won because Linda Love spelled "girl" g-r-i-l. My prize was a camellia bush, and I was the envy of the class.

Miss King was a small gray-haired woman about 60. She was a great teacher, and everybody knew it--the kids, the parents and the other teachers. Most schools have such teachers.

This is what the "merit pay" issue is all about. Shouldn't we reward those teachers who do the best job? Shouldn't we make teachers with superlative skills available to those still learning the profession? Of course we should.

The difficulty with using "merit pay" as the focal point in the education debate is that it is divisive and somewhat beside the point. It is good that the national debate on education is under way. It is sad that the debate is filled with scapegoating, political maneuvering and simple-minded solutions.

Parents blame the teachers and the schools. Teachers blame the politicians and the parents. Politicians blame each other. It's worth trying to sort out some of the facts, and see what conclusions they support:

* Today's kids aren't learning enough.

Whether one cites standardized achievement tests, college entrance exam scores or the writing ability of college graduates, American kids are losing ground.

* Some of our best teachers were historical accidents, but times are changing.

The Miss Kings of our youth were probably drawn to teaching because of limited employment opportunities for women and the post-Depression desperation to get any kind of regular job. Today, the profession is attracting a disproportionate number of people with less intellectual ability and preparation. Many of them will become mediocre, uninspired teachers who produce mediocre, uninspired students.

* Sociological trends make unreasonable demands on schools.

In an era of single-parent families, two wage-earner families and geographically separated, extended families, the schools and teachers are asked to be home, parent, disciplinarian, and moral example. This is a formula for failure.

* School administrations are often top-heavy.

As school enrollments declined, many tenured teachers became administrators. Having little to do, they make work for teachers by requiring attendance at seminars and planning sessions which are often counterproductive. Administrators are also the highest paid employees of school systems.

* Money does make a difference.

More money buys better teachers, smaller classes, updated facilities, tutors, computers, ample materials and extracurricular opportunities. Federal spending in compensatory education for underprivileged students has produced measurable improvements in educational achievement.

* Prayer in schools and tuition tax credits will not make a difference.

School prayer and tuition tax credits are to conservatives what the establishment of the Department of Education was to liberals during the Carter administration--a diversion irrelevant to the problems at hand.

What should be done?

Obviously, the problems are complex and they vary from state-to-state, school district-to-school district. But it is worth looking for some general conclusions that will have broad applicability.

1. Recognize the need for more money.

This does not mean the federal government should appropriate funds it does not have, nor that every teacher in the country should get a pay raise. It does mean that the federal, state and local governments are going to have to ante up. They will, but only if they believe they are getting their money's worth.

2. Toughen curricula and performance requirements.

It is perhaps unfair to use objective criteria for measuring school performance. It is more unfair not to. It is not asking too much of our schools to equip their products, our children, with minimal educational skills.

3. Recruit better teachers and reward them accordingly.

It is estimated that in the next 10 years our society will need more new teachers than computer programmers and analysts. The reason for this is massive teacher retirements and increasing enrollment resulting from the baby boom's boomlet. This is the ideal time to recognize the importance and worth of this profession by devoting more money to teacher pay. But teachers do themselves no credit when they fight merit pay. They should cooperate with authorities to find ways to make it work rather than defend the mindless current system of rewarding seniority and college course work.

4. Get rid of the "deadwood."

Teacher tenure is sacrosanct, but perhaps it shouldn't be. Teachers and administrators who can't pull their own weight should be selected out. Unproductive school employees violate the public trust and hurt our kids. That should not be tolerated.

5. Let the schools educate.

One major discipline problem can destroy a teacher's efforts to meet educational objectives for a class. The schools need more flexibility to discipline and remove chronic problems.

6. Challenge parents to get involved.

Many private schools that are over- subscribed consider parental involvement in admissions decisions. Public schools cannot do that, but they can reach out and seek a more active role from parents in areas like fund-raising, teachers, teachers' aides, field trips, special programs, etc. Parents also must learn to be realistic about their expectations of the schools. Education really does start at home.

7. Quit blaming someone else for our failures.

Miss King tried to teach us second graders about teamwork, whether in reading groups, a "spelldown," or a game of kickball. We are in this battle together, and that is how we will succeed or fail.