IN THE kindergarten-first grade transition class at Alexandria's Cora Kelly Magnet School, the scene on a hot September afternoon is one of apparent disorganization.

The large room is without a central focus, wall chalkboard or desks. Kids scatter in small, excited groups to colorfully equipped "centers" -- painting here, big blocks there, housekeeping or music or reading elsewhere. Teacher Kris Derrington moves from child to child, unobtrusively keeping the noise level down and the curiosity level up. The children may have spent time today in the school's computer-based math or "writing to read" labs, but what is going on now is considered an equally important part of their curriculum, in a setting carefully designed to spark numerous, tiny, spontaneous opportunities for learning.

On another morning, the kindergarten class at Arlington County's Page Traditional School presents a picture of order and attentiveness.

Twenty-six children cluster at the feet of their teacher, Lorraine Gandy, who for almost an hour delivers an effervescent, multi-media performance (chalkboard, overhead projector, easel chart), designed to introduce her rapt and docile charges to the letter "E." They drill letter sounds. At the children's prompting ("Hands, please") Gandy executes amazingly quick and funny drawings of "E" words: egg, eagle, Easter, Elizabeth. After a bracing exercise break midway through, she exclaims, "Now let's show Elmer Elephant that you're ready to work again!" For homework the children will do their own "E" drawings, then write or dictate stories made up of "E" words in their alphabet workbooks.

On the issue of teacher-directed versus child-centered learning, Gandy observes, "The way I see it, you don't learn to drive a car by sitting behind the wheel and experimenting; someone has to teach you how to do it." Derrington, by contrast, thinks that children not only learn less effectively in a teacher-directed classroom, but also "get the message that they can't learn independently, they develop -- or consolidate -- habits of passivity."

Two schools, two different approaches. All over the Washington area, early childhood programs from preschool through first grade reflect either of these extremes or, more likely, something in between.

In his new book, Miseducation: Preschoolers at Risk, child psychologist David Elkind writes, "The threat of miseducation is greatest in public education, where the most children will be affected . . . " Given the push to establish publicly funded programs for 4- and 5-year-olds (kindergarten is a universal option in the Washington area while pre-kindergarten classes open to all children, not just the disadvantaged, are fully-fledged in the District, starting up in Montgomery and Prince George's Counties and "being studied" in Fairfax County), the central question obviously becomes: what constitutes a quality program, what miseducation?

At the pre-K level there is no debate, at least as far as the public schools are concerned. Across the board, area educators echo the views of Constance Mair, supervising director of early childhood for the D.C. public schools, who is responsible for 182 pre-K classrooms, by far the largest number in any local school district. "Our philosophy emphasizes the value of child-initiated learning," she says. "Children of this age need developmentally appropriate programs. They don't need to be learning their ABCs. But that doesn't mean they shouldn't be doing things that will really stimulate reading readiness -- stories, dramatic play, art, writing -- or math readiness, playing with blocks, discovering sets and patterns."

Mair acknowledges that she personally knows of very few professionals, if any, who would contradict David Elkind on the rights and wrongs of early childhood education, but she is convinced he is justified in response to the pending explosion in public preschool programs. "So many schools all over the country are poised to introduce 4-year-old classrooms; you've got to be very careful. Once you get inappropriately academic programs in there, it will be hard to get them out. The problem is that it costs, at a conservative estimate, $8000 to equip one pre-K classroom as it should be equipped, with an appropriate adult-child ratio and a suitable environment. But many schools, especially in the poorer states, are not going to want to spend that much. They'll be attracted precisely by the fact that it's cheaper to buy workbooks than blocks."

At the kindergarten level, voices of dissent or caution can be heard. "A raging debate has been going on for some years over the value of developmental early childhood education," says Alexandria's director of elementary education, Shirley Urquia. "It still boils down to which viewpoint you hold. There is not a uniform consensus."

In Arlington, opposing views are actually institutionalized in the two alternative schools. Page Traditional (which in Lorraine Gandy's words "is all about whole-group instruction and teacher-centered learning") and Drew Model school (which like Kris Derrington's classroom offers the "developmental" approach, based on the belief that a young child learns best through guided discovery, concretely rather than abstractly, at his or her own pace.) For the rest, as the county's early childhood program specialist, Janice Adkisson, judiciously says, "there is a lot of discretion at the school base. One school, Abingdon Elementary, last year boasted one of the most "academic" kindergarten classes in the county but this year is trying a radically different "language and literature-based program" taught jointly by former first- and second-grade teachers Penny Holland and Jan Tuck, who had been disturbed by the lack of creativity they were seeing in older children.

In Alexandria Urquia describes current kindergarten programs as "something of a blend," featuring individualized teaching styles. She sees the work of teachers like Kris Derrington as "an alternative or an option" within the system, thus increasing the range of parents' choices. Next year, for example, Derrington and fellow teacher Karen Mitsoff will be pioneering a joint kindergarten-first grade developmental program at Cora Kelly school.

"When you have a fine developmental teacher, it's just a joy to watch," says Urquia, "but my personal opinion is you need to be exceptionally well-organized to monitor and keep track of every single child, as this approach requires. With people who get lost in detail, children are going to be short-changed, fall through the cracks." Derrington admits that management is the most controversial issue, but "there are techniques." Asked about this, David Elkind points out that early childhood is a recognized educational field. "It doesn't take anybody out of the ordinary, but it does take training." There is also the view that the individualized approach is not peculiar to developmental teaching but is a mark of good teaching in general. "I just don't see that there's any other way to do it," says Abingdon's Penny Holland.

Yet, oddly enough, outside of Arlington and Alexandria the "raging debate" is scarcely apparent. The more people one talks to, the greater unanimity one finds on key pedagogical issues and priorities.

Judy Hoyer, coordinator of early childhood programs for Prince George's County public schools, also describes her personal philosophy in terms of a blend or synthesis of styles, but in practice it conforms closely to the developmental model. "Twenty years ago," she say, "kindergarten was not even thought of as necessary. It was a place for socialization -- learning to share, take turns, stand in line -- with no emphasis on cognitive activities at all. Later, at the other extreme, you got kindergartens -- we still have them -- that by the first week of September had put the children in reading groups and set them to work doing math exercises. We have tried to take the best of both philosophies in what we call a multi-sensory approach. Children can learn things when they're five, or four, but not by doing the things that are traditionally done in first grade. We stress concrete over abstract -- kids write, but in sand or on slate or with paint or clay, not just pencils."

Hoyer admits, however, that although she's been "phasing in" the multi-sensory approach, a few schools at a time, since 1979, there is still "a lot of latitude out there for individual teachers."

Montgomery County teacher's supervisor for early childhood, Sarah Rice, shares Hoyer's enthusiasm for developmental learning and also her guardedness about what has actually been implemented so far in county schools. "We do have kindergarten classrooms out there that fit the 'academic' description, but we are gradually trying to educate Montgomery County teachers," says Rice, who holds a doctorate in human development from George Washington University.

"Educators have been very narrow in their understanding about how young children learn," she adds. "Children are capable of learning a great number of things which might be called 'academic,' but how they do this and when and and whether they're ready to do it are the important questions."

In the District, Constance Mair not only does not advocate pushing academics down into kindergarten, she describes how at a recent all-day training program for D.C. elementary school principals, the effort was rather to see what could be pushed up into the first and second grades from the "hands-on" practices of kindergarten. (Alexandria's Shirley Urquia is incidentally the only local educator who mentions the difficulties children might have adjusting from a developmental kindergarten to a traditional first grade. "Some kids," she says bluntly, "just hit the wall.")

Presiding over what she calls "a thoroughly heterogeneous population in both the city and its classrooms, Mair, like her suburban counterparts, acknowledges that the D.C. schools often reflect the neighborhoods they are in "and what the parents want," which in many instances, and often for a variety of reasons, is accelerated academics.

Perhaps only in Fairfax County is there no such obvious disjunction between ideals and reality. Fully operational in the county schools this year is the area's only unified, experience-based, language-oriented kindergarten curriculum, the product of three years planning and labor by a team of teachers, principals and curriculum specialists. Dolores Varnon, former co-ordinator of the project and now principal of Westbriar Elementary School in Fairfax County, describes how, after researching "the ways in which young children learn" (holistically rather than compartmentally, what Elkind calls "permeable learning"), the team recommended a curriculum which would incorporate the entire instructional program into three integrated strands: motor development/music; math/science; and language arts.

The inspirational aspect of the program, however, is not its content -- since individual teachers here and there throughout the area do similar things -- but its sheer extent and the organization required to put it in place, down to equipping every classroom, training every teacher and mounting a massive parent-education campaign. What Fairfax County's experiment amounts to is an attempt to institutionalize good teaching, defined in terms of the latest in child development research.

Among local educators, at least, David Elkind seems to be preaching to the converted, the "early childhood debate" becoming less a matter of substance than of semantics. Labels such as "academic," "traditional" or "developmental" are volatile to the point of meaninglessness, as Elkind himself acknowledges: "In general, I have found that regardless of the label . . . teachers who know young children are much more alike in practice than those who do not."

Thus Kris Derrington and Lorraine Gandy seem to hold quite incompatible views of their respective jobs in the classroom; in practice, surprisingly, their styles converge: Gandy's traditional kindergarten is multi-sensory, based on the idea of permeable learning, and stresses creative writing and freedom of artistic expression, while Derrington's apparently disorganized open classroom is in fact highly structured, as she tracks the daily progress of each child.

There are not many local kindergartens, public or private, that actively seek out children reared on flash cards and reading primers. "Miseducation," in high-achieving Washington, just may be more rampant at home than in school. ::

Elizabeth Ward is a Washington writer and editor.