It is generally agreed that the quickest way to sabotage morale in the average American office would be to post the wages of every worker.

You would, of course, destroy one of the two perennial subjects of office gossip--who earns what and who's sleeping with whom. More to the point, the office would be rife with cries of unfairness as people tried to figure out how and why some are paid more or less than others.

This doesn't mean that the work places in which everyone is paid the same in the same job category are models of harmony. There, people mumble about how it is unfair for two workers, one who is competent and eager and one who is not, to be paid the same. This, too, we are told, undermines performance.

If you think about this a bit, it may be easier to understand the current debate about merit pay for teachers for their performance. As Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander has lamented, "No state pays any teacher one penny more for doing a good job."

At a time of general discontent with education, many believe that we should pay the good teachers more than the bad teachers. They want to use the paycheck to attract and keep the best people.

On the other hand, those who are uneasy with or downright opposed to merit pay--including many teachers--don't trust the way judgments of merit would be made. The new head of the National Education Association, Mary Futrell, gave a weak endorsement to the concept of merit pay before a congressional committee--as long as it were not based on "favoritism, subjective evaluation of teachers or arbitrary standards."

In San Marino, Calif., a 25-year-old merit pay plan was dumped last year because, said the superintendent, "it had become divisive." The teachers didn't trust the evaluators.

There is something amusing about the way that teachers, of all people, resist being graded. The same people who would defend their own objectivity are sure that any merit plan handled by the administration would go to the principal's pets.

But their suspicion is not that unusual. Many other white-collar workers believe that the raises of some peers come through less-than-objective judgments. At the same time, we are attracted by the possibility of our own individual reward. Bosses, for their part, want the right and, yes, the power to make these decisions.

I suppose that we have tied this issue into a typically American knot. We're in the fairness bind again. As a people, we believe in both promoting equality and in rewarding excellence. We believe that people may be more comfortable in equitable situations and more striving in competitive situations.

The support for merit pay rides the social pendulum as it swings. For years the government focused on issues of equality in the schools. Now we focus on excellence. For years colleges gave out scholarships to the neediest. Now many have set up scholarships for the brightest.

The unions are right in suggesting that the merit pay issue plays a minor role in educational reform. When the average starting salary of a teacher is $12,700, the first problem may be how to increase standard pay. But the merit pay question plays a large role in our psyches.

At the moment there is no relationship between teaching ability and salary in public schools. Teachers move up the ladder with seniority or advanced degrees, although there is no truth to the idea that having a Ph.D. raises students' reading scores, or that an Ed.D. makes for brilliant teaching. We give out raises for how far they advance as students, not as teachers.

If a system that offers individual incentives for teachers has its risks, so does the current system. There are a dozen merit pay plans being considered now. Some reward teachers for student test scores; others reward whole schools. With planning and politicking, teachers can help establish the criteria for judging their performance.

But today the taxpayers, who are in essence public school teachers' bosses, are discontented. There is pressure among those who want to exercise some discretion, to flex some muscle, to hold out the carrots and dispense rewards for the task of teaching.

Merit pay is worth a fair try.