The nation's largest higher education group today urged college presidents to put a priority on improving teacher preparation programs on their campuses during what is predicted to be a period of high turnover in the teaching force over the next decade.

The nation is projected to need 2.5 million new teachers by 2010--about 20 percent more than normal because of retirements, growing enrollments and reductions in class size. Some school districts have already faced shortages in the classroom.

But a report on teacher training issued today by the American Council on Education, an umbrella organization of college groups, casts the anticipated turnover as an opportunity to upgrade the quality of teachers rather than an educational crisis.

Recent research has shown that the ability of a teacher has a strong influence on student achievement, prompting President Clinton and Congress to attempt in federal legislation to improve the training teachers receive before and after entering the classroom. Opinion polls have also indicated that having better teachers is widely seen as a favored solution to academic problems in public schools.

"We know now that the quality of the teacher is the key to improved student performance, regardless of the condition of the schools, the affluence of the child, the nature of the community or any other element in the lives or educational environment of school children," a 36-member panel of college presidents and other educators concluded in a report entitled, "To Touch the Future: Transforming the Way Teachers Are Taught."

The panel criticized the federal government for "indefensibly inadequate" spending on education research, about $300 million a year, compared to $5 billion for space and nearly $2 billion for agricultural research. Stanley O. Ikenberry, president of the council, said that "it ought to be the federal role" to fund research that could, for instance, determine what specific practices an effective teacher uses.

The council, which normally focuses on federal policy issues, made the unusual foray into academic matters in a toughly worded report that recommended colleges make teacher training programs a central part of their missions or drop them. "They should be moved to the center--or moved out," the panel said.

The presidents of each of the 1,300 colleges that train teachers were urged to have the academic program reviewed twice--internally and by a college accrediting body or other outsiders. Fewer than half of teacher training programs are accredited.

The report makes only general suggestions about the ways teacher training could be improved. More training in how to use computers, better student teaching internships and greater involvement by professors from outside education faculties were recommended.

Colleges of education at large public universities have typically been faulted for producing teachers who have not taken rigorous course work. The report said colleges should "move teacher education beyond the confines of a single department or college."

The panel was particularly concerned about inadequate training of teachers in mathematics and science. More than half of the nation's math and science teachers did not have a college major or minor in the subject, according to a 1996 Education Department study. The proportion was higher--70 percent--in schools that enroll many poor children.

The panel called the situation in math and science teaching a "reprehensible form of publicly sanctioned malpractice."

David Imig, president of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, welcomed the report and predicted reviews of teacher training programs would show that responsibility for any shortcomings is "a university-wide problem. It's not just a problem with the teacher ed program."

Copies of the report were being mailed to the president of every college in the nation. The American Council on Education last issued a similar report on teacher training more than a half century ago. "The quality of teachers is--or should be--a matter of deepest social concern," another panel of educators concluded in 1946.