YPSILANTI, MICH. -- Nearly a century ago, when it was known as Michigan State Normal School, Eastern Michigan University crossed an educational frontier by becoming the first college to extend academic training for teachers from two years to four.

But in the past decade Eastern Michigan, the largest college of education in the country, has resisted a more recent reform widely seen as a way of upgrading the quality of U.S. teachers -- extending teacher preparation to five years. "I think we're still putting out good teachers," said Eastern Michigan President William Shelton.

Change comes slowly to the 1,100 colleges with education programs that produce most of the nation's teachers, and it is one reason they get much of the blame for the uneven quality of teaching, seen as a major cause of the crisis in American public education.

In an attempt to improve teacher quality, states and school districts in the 1980s boosted teacher salaries and, in some places, changed regulations to attract professionals trained in fields other than education. Less has been done to improve teacher education, despite agreement that teachers need to be better prepared.

A blunt assessment of teacher quality came from a group of education deans in a 1986 report, "Tomorrow's Teachers":

"The undergraduate education major must be abolished in our universities. For elementary teachers, this degree has too often become a substitute for learning any academic subject deeply enough to teach it well. . . . Few of them know much about anything, because they are required to know a little of everything."

Nor did the deans, named the Holmes Group after a Harvard education dean, spare high school teachers from criticism. "Most exhibit no deep grasp of their subjects, nor any passion for them," the deans said.

The most commonly cited evidence of the low quality of teachers is the below-average scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test of high school seniors who intend to major in education. Last year, aspiring teachers fell almost 50 points below the national average, one of the lowest scores among 22 possible majors listed.

Some colleges have tried to get better students into teaching by raising academic standards for education programs. But there may be little incentive as long as education courses retain a reputation for being unstimulating.

Many educators date the decline of the teaching force to the point when women and minorities, traditionally steered into education because they had little alternative, began pursuing opportunities that became available in higher-paying professions.

The Holmes Group proposal for five-year programs, which enjoys the support of both national teachers unions, would make teacher education more like preparation for careers in business management, law and medicine.

Currently, critics believe education students spend so much time studying how to teach that they do not learn enough about what they will teach. Several states, including Virginia, New Jersey and Texas, have limited how many education courses can be counted toward requirements for a teaching certificate.

At Eastern Michigan, a prospective elementary teacher is required to accumulate 32 of 124 credits in courses such as Media for the Classroom Teacher, Computer Applications in Education, and Curriculum and Methods. The total rises to 60 credits when other courses specifically designed for teachers are counted.

Included are science courses in physics, chemistry, biology and Earth science. They encompass lessons on how to teach science to young children and are generally not as rigorous as regular science courses. In the chemistry course, for example, a professor avoided using algebra in a lecture on how heat affects the volume of gases. The students are required to take one basic math course.

Junior Sandra Ford of Allen Park, Mich., said her chemistry class was not as difficult as the science courses her friends take.

"This is different," Ford said. "This is for elementary school teachers. It's really watered down. . . . It's really hands-on, instead of heavy. You're learning basic concepts."

Todd Elmore, a senior from Riverview, said the professor "conveys it to us like we would convey it to elementary students -- understandable and enjoyable."

There are several variations of five-year programs, but the basic idea is to require prospective teachers to spend four years mastering a subject and then a fifth one learning how to teach.

Only a handful of the mostly public institutions that train teachers have such programs. Two weeks ago, the University of Virginia graduated the first teachers from its five-year program.

"We need folks who are competent in the liberal arts tradition," said Sharon Richardson of the National Education Association. "If it takes four years to become a liberally educated person, when are you going to devote yourself to professional studies and clinical experience {practice teaching}?"

Judith E. Lanier, who is on leave as education dean at Michigan State University, said: "We know there is a better way of doing this business. Teacher education is a joke at a lot of places."

Lanier has advocated five-year programs as chairman of the Holmes Group, which is made up of education deans at 98 schools, including Howard University, Catholic University, George Mason University, the University of Virginia and the University of Maryland.

But even with Lanier's support and the open acknowledgement by many education professors that current academic requirements are inadequate, a five-year program is at least a year away at Michigan State, another big producer of education degrees.

"Germany will probably be unified before a college of education will be changed," said Mary Dean Barringer, Lanier's assistant. "You just can't come in with a Holmes Group agenda and say, 'Here it is.' "

"The way a university works, everyone has to agree. That's why it takes so long. It's even worse than the Congress," explained Mary Kennedy, who directs the federally funded National Center for Research on Teacher Education at Michigan State.

The concern at Michigan State seems to reflect a different perspective from Eastern Michigan on what makes a good teacher. Michigan State aims to produce teachers who are scholars, not just technicians trained in classroom skills.

"Teachers are people who are dealing in the world of ideas and the world of people at the same time," said G. Williamson McDiarmid, an education professor at Michigan State. He called teachers "practical intellectuals."

Lanier has made some changes in education course work since becoming dean in 1980, but she concedes: "We're not enough like we want to be."

In Michigan and most states, teachers at the high school level have usually majored in an academic subject, not education. To give prospective teachers a better grasp of the subjects they will teach, Lanier wants to reshape liberal arts courses and has dispatched three teams of education professors to negotiate course revisions and new majors with other colleges at Michigan State. It is a delicate, time-consuming exercise in academic politics.

With the mathematics department, education professors are trying to negotiate a new math major for prospective teachers that would require less calculus, but more study of basic concepts. Michigan State researchers have discovered, for instance, that traditional math majors and elementary teachers alike have difficulty devising a story problem for dividing 1 3/4 by 1 1/2 or explaining why you cannot divide by zero.

Little self-criticism is heard at Eastern Michigan, founded in 1849 as a teachers college and long overshadowed by the larger Michigan State and nearby University of Michigan. In 1988, Eastern awarded 2,603 degrees and certificates in education, compared to Michigan State's 1,993, according to the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

Eastern officials proudly cite the demand for the college's graduates, who are widely exposed to the latest education techniques and strategies popular in Michigan school districts.

"If there is some new package that some entrepreneur has sold to a district, our students know about it," said W. Scott Westerman, Eastern's education dean.

After four years of faculty debate and lobbying, Eastern Michigan revised its education program in 1986 to increase instruction on how to prepare lesson plans, teach special education students and use computers in the classroom. A five-year program was rejected as unneccessary. Students' grasp of academic subjects, Westerman said, was not an issue.

"No employer has said our students don't know enough math, science, social science or whatever," he said.

Despite official opposition to a five-year program, however, school officials have in effect backed into a longer course of study by adding requirements. Westerman said prospective elementary teachers have been taking an average of 4 1/2 years to graduate.

Westerman argues that five-year programs have appealed mostly to graduate-oriented universities, such as Michigan State, and implementing one at Eastern Michigan would mean abandoning its traditional mission of training undergraduates as teachers.

That position sounds familiar to Lanier. It was what other normal schools said when Eastern Michigan's predecessor expanded teacher training from two years to four in the early 1890s.

"The arguments are just the same," Lanier said. "The normal schools were convinced they were going to go out of business. They didn't see themselves becoming four-year universities."