When President Clinton proposed putting 100,000 new teachers in American public schools to reduce classroom size in grades one through three, he spurred a discussion he might not have anticipated. All those new teachers are not going to help much, a number of experts have noted, if they aren't any better at their jobs than many of those already teaching.

Classroom size does count. One major study in Tennessee puts an exclamation point behind that statement, even if dozens of previous studies have been inconclusive. Common sense would seem to buttress the proposition, too. Especially if you go from a class of, say, 25, to a class of, say, 15, a teacher will be significantly better able to control what's going on and to pay attention to individual students.But common sense and studies also support the notion that even one-on-one tutorials will flop if the teacher is a dud. One such study was conducted by the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future. In examining improvements on scores in math tests, it found that 8 percent was due to reductions in class size. And a change in the quality of teachers? That accounted for 43 percent of the progress, it's reported.

The sad fact is, many teachers in America are not up to snuff. Many high school teachers don't have college majors in the subjects they teach. The nation's education schools famously waste time on irrelevancies, and teachers' unions often oppose allowing even gifted, knowledgeable teachers in the classroom if they aren't education school products. Many states lack tough, intelligent certification programs and, even when they have them, don't stick to them. Tenure gets in the way of firing when firing is needed.

One expert has been quoted as saying that the $12 billion Clinton proposes to spend on more teachers would be better spent on retraining the teachers we already have. Of course, there's little reason for education dollars to go from the taxpayer to Washington and then back to the school districts, and no one program would fit all situations. Education is the responsibility of states and localities. They need to do their own analyses and figure out their own solutions, while never overlooking that, no matter what else is done, good classroom results are unlikely without good teachers.