The timer rings after 30 minutes. Eliot stretches wide as a butterfly as he pushes back from his desk. He looks sidelong, tentatively, at Stephanie's braids but resists as he two-steps behind her and moves to the spelling station in the corner of the room. Children chatter and chide each other as they shift like prisms in a kaleidoscope to their next stations. The timer is reset, and their collective energy refocusses on the next activities. Five children concentrate in another corner. They are chip-trading, a game that teaches basic math facts, while 22 other children ages 6-9 engage in small group or individual activities. All are participating ina unique project at Murch Elementary School that according to superintendent of schools Vincent Reed could serve as a model for Competency-Based Curriculum (CBC), an educational concept that Washington schools have committed themselves to for the fall of 1979. But even if the project is both innovative and effective that does not automatically insure its adoption in the school system.

Mark and Jessica are at station one, reading. Stephanie works on her math-she's at station two. Chris practices his handwriting; Keith works on spelling, and Susie, who finished her composition assignment, goes to the library to choose a reading book.

It takes a moment to locate the teacher, Sheila Ford. A pixie-like young woman whom the children affectionately call "Missy," she is on a rug in one corner of the room, five children semi-circled around her. She is the architect of this experimental project; yet some believe it is her energy and creativity-rather than the design of her project-that makes the difference.

Her location seems a metaphor for the way she views her teaching role and for the structure she provides the classroom. She doesn't loom at the front of the class. She stands instead, to the side, at the elbow-as it were-of this classroom. She sees herself as "facilitating" learning, rather than imparting knowledge.

Yet there is no question that there is order and control as well as plenty of learning going on in her class. Ford's students make up the core class of an educational project developed by her three years ago.It is unique: first, in the way it tailors learning tasks to student's individual needs; second, in the way she organizes the classroom to allow children to begin at their own levels and progress at their own rates; and third in the way children of different ages relate to each other in the learning environment-an environment that is more like a family than like a traditional classroom.

So far her techniques have had results, and the hard evidence is impressive, albeit controversial. According to last year's end-of-year test scores, the mean gain of students in Ford's class was two years and five months in reading and two years and two months in math. Normally children gain about nine months to a year.

With results like these, Washington's school problems could be solved-and it is this possibility that makes such a project worth further consideration. But at issue is whether Ford's system can be transported to other schools in Washington-and around the country. In particular question is whether a project that began at a Northwest school in a predominantly white, middle-class, professionally-oriented neighborhood can be transported to schools of different economic and/or racial balance. Also in contention are the experimental results of the project and whether they are valid. If they are, a further concern is whether it is fair for some children to be in the project and others not.

The educational picture in Washington over the last 10 years has been enough to make the community and administration tear at their hair. It's not that innovations haven't been tried. They have. In fact, Washington schools have pioneered in some programs such as the "creative utilization of open spaces," according to Dr. James Guines, associate superintendent. Other programs such as the Burrough's Montessori Model, Distar and Follow Through have made important contributions to Washington education.

Yet, achievement scores over the years have declined, so that by the ninth grade, according to last year's reported scores, students are three years behind in both math and reading. And as scores have declined, so has the student population as families have moved to other districts looking for better schools. This exodus has resulted in another problem: combined classes. Combined classes are needed when all single-grade classrooms have been filled (the class-size limit is 28), and there are additional children in some grades, but not enough to fill a whole class. The remaining students are placed in combination classes; for example: second-third or fourth-fifth grade.

Combined classes are an administrative necessity that nobody likes. Teachers feel that having to teach two grades at the same time makes their job impossible; parents feel their children will suffer in the makeshift environment; and adminstrators stay busy trying to soothe the feelings of both.

To some extent Washington's problems stem, in part, from the see-saw effect that has plagued American education in general. Philosophical pendulums have swung from the 3Rs to the social/civic/psychological education of the child and back to the 3Rs.

Next fall Washington schools go full-scale to Competency-Based Curriculum, a back-to-basics curriculum designed to insure that a child know one skill before moving to a skill at a higher level. It should prevent his being passed from one grade to the next without having mastered the appropriate skills. CBC is an eclectic approach, Dr. Guines maintains, and that should help insure its success.

In the meantime Washington schools are experimenting with numerous strategies to improve education: CBC alternative models, combined classrooms in open spaces and self-directed, contract programs. Teachers are trying to adopt the best of Piaget, Montessori and others. Schools and classrooms are individualizing instruction. In this atmosphere of search for better techniques, Ford's project stands out as the only formalized, funded, pilot program at the elementary level.

Ford's project began as a response to the problem of combined classes. Taking the administrative necessity as a jumping off point, Ford sets out to prove that not only can you teach children of different ages just as well in the same class, but that the learning environment and the experiences can be superior to the traditional classroom.

She developed her ideas with the help and support of former principal Miriam Kaufman and began the project three years ago with no funding. She then wrote a proposal on the work and took it to HEW. Last year the project was awarded funds under Tile IV of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, and this year the project was expanded to six classrooms at Murch and the funing increased from $23,000 to $74,000.

Given a first-second-third-grade combination class, her first job was to figure out some way of keeping track of each child's learning needs. She would be unable to make broad assumptions about their abilities because of the range in chronological as well as mental age. What she needed was some kind of system.

She remembered the cards her husband had used as a graduate student to keep track of his research. He had used a system-the McBee Key Sort Manual Retrieve System-introduced to him by a professor. The system uses a stack of cards with punch-holes that frame the card; a narrow margin remains surrounding the card. Each card could represent a book, each punch-hole keyed to a subject, a piece of information, a reference, etc. The cards are stacked and a needle-like object is pushed through the holes which represent, for example, the Chinese Cultural Revoution, and all the cards that are keyed to that subject are retrieved.

Ford and her husband were convinced that his system could be a helpful aid in teaching basic skills to children. The two of them sat down together and worked it out. They took the PRT (Prescriptive Reading Test) and the PMT (Prescriptive Math Test); and listed the skills each tests for. Then they keyed each skill to a punch-hole and matched it with a textbook page. And when they had finished, they had a way of keeping track of every child's progress and of quickly grouping together all those in a class who need work on a particular skill.

Once a skill is mastered, such as two-digit addition, Ford punches the child's card so that there is no longer a margin next to the hole; thus, when she pushes the skewer through the hole keyed to two-digit addition, that card will not be retrieved.

The McBee Company claims that the possible key sort combinations are unlimited, and that a card could be devised to monitor all the learning objectives for a child from first to sixth grade.

Ford's classroom is organized around six learning centers or stations in "open classroom" fashion. But her class is not just another variation of the open classroom where students are given choices about what they want to learn and in what time period. In fact, because of the management and control that the key sort system provides, Ford's classroom de-emphasizes student choice wile emphasizing competency in basic skills.

The children know which station to go to by looking at the "road map," a simple chart which tells them (on the basis of what color-coded group they're in) which learning station they should be at.

The six color-coded groups are mixed in age, skill and ability. Deane is orange, but that has nothing to do with how well he is doing. In other words, he does not move from orange to, say, yellow when he reaches a certain skill level. Thus, there is no stigma attached to a color group, nor are children tracked into a particular ability level.

Ford then groups and regroups the children daily according to what skills they need work on. For example, she may group five children together for work on distinguishing fact from opinion. There are about eight such skill groupings at any one time, though they are as fluid as the needs of each child: both are constantly changing.

The organization of Ford's classroom challenges existing models of teacher-student role. The traditional teacher is a fountain from which pours knowledge; the students, sponges absorbing that knowledge. But Ford's teacher role hearkens back to the Latin root of the word education: ex duco, lead out from. She thinks of herself as providing direction for discoveries.

One result of this role modification could be a severe obstacle to the program: that is the investment of time on the part of the teacher. The detailed and extensive planning and evaluation tax a teacher's time budget. And this is something to consider if you're thinking about expanding to the entire school district.

In a program of this sort it's impossible for a teacher to "wing it" for a day. And teachers who have taught for several years, who have their lesson plans down to an exact science, may be loath to give it all up. After all, they've already paid their dues and have past student successes.

Another stumbling block for the program is instructional materials. While there are commercial packages availbale for individualizing teaching, they are not always applicable.

Still another imperfection, Ford says, is that some students experience initial adjustment problems. Incoming first graders are disoriented. And the child who as yet is not self-directed can have difficulty adjusting to the concept that he will be taking more responsibility for his own education, that there will be less "spoon-feeding."

Yet the educational pluses, particularly relating to the multi-age environment, may outweigh any disadvantages. Those advantages, according to Ford, are:

Children learn to cooperate rather than to compete.

Children learn to be more independent and self-reliant.

It erases feelings of being different for the oversized or undersized child and for the slow learner.

Since only one-third of the class moves on to another class each year in a 1-2-3 combination, there is stability and continuity in teacher-student interactions. Children need adjust to a new teacher only once every three years, and teachers have only one-third new students each year.

Discipline is less a problem than in single grades because there are fewer children the same age who can become a hardcore of misbehavior.

Superintendent Vincent Reed agrees that "multi-age grouping could create a healthier environment for children," especially those who have trouble progressing at the normal grade-level rate. "Youngsters are not locked into a rigid first, second and third grade with the end of year pressure of succeeding or being held back." It buys time for the slow starter or the late bloomer. Ford points out, though, that her methods could be applicable to any classroom whether multi-grade or single grade.

Test results and personal testimony of parents and children in the project have led to kudos for the project from the educational community. Officials of ESEA, who have been involved with the project's evaluation since its funding, believe the project's successes can be transported to other schools, either in toto or in part.

The success story of one student tends to support that applicability to other kinds of schools and students. An inner-city child, he entered the project last year at the third-grade level. He exhibited the usual behavior linked with the frustration of a child who has been pushed along in the system, but whose learning style has never been understood. He tuned out and spent a lot of time wandering around the room. His CTBS scores for math placed him at second grade, fifth month level.

The end of the year tests in math showed a two-year gain for this student-fourth grade, fifth month. And now in fourth grade, "He tests on grade level or above in all subjects for the first time in his life," says his parent. "I can't say enough about the project."

Lydia Thornton, new principal of Murch, corroborates the enthusiasm of other Washington administrators: "The project broadens the possibilities for diversity of instruction while accomplishing CBC goals. Since CBC is to be implemented throughout the school district next year, the project's techniques could furnish important applications to other classrooms."

But the total picture is not all so rosy. For example, parents and teachers not involved in the project are critical of the amount of testing which plays an integral role in daily instruction. They feel that Ford is simply teaching her class to test well.

Mary Ann Allin, a parent of one of the children in the project who helps with the weekly cooking class, responds by saying all the fuss is "just sour grapes. Tests are designed to evaluate skills, and to say that a good score shows that the child has learned to test well rather than know the skill is only to invalidate the test, not say anything about the child's skills. And if those tests are accepted nationwide as a barometer of achievement, then clearly, the program is paying off."

There is also criticism about the selection process. (Children are chosen by lottery from a list of those who wish to participate in the project.) Parents not in the project fear a subtle tracking system has begun at Murch. With the expansion of the program this year to six classrooms the possibility arises that some students will spend their entire elementary careers in classrooms of this nature-and others will be left out. Should a child's education suffer through inequitable classroom placement?

This has become a cause celebre for the parents of children in kindergarten this year. One group of parents met to discuss what, if anything, they could do. Thir outrage may have led to a policy change-a lottery for first-grade entry into the project. But now parents in the other kindergarten who thought their child's placement in the project was guaranteed are angry.

Other criticisms and questions center around the experimental nature of the project.Nevsor Stacy, president of the Murch Home and School Association (Murch's equivalent of a PTA), and an experienced educator in her own right, has some reservations. Principal among them is her belief that the project so far "hasn't proved anything except that Mrs. Ford is an excellent teacher."

Others call into the question the project's validity when the students initially selected for the program scored toward the upper end of achievement. But while that is true, the control group scored similarly.

Since Murch School does not have IQ data on its student population, only achievement scores were used for the selection of both the experiemental group and the control group. Both groups scored higher on the average than national norms, but the groups reflected the general population of Murch (a Norhwest school drawing from middle-to high-income, professionally oriented families.) The important criterion is that initial grade-equivalent levels for the two groups were statistically similar. The experimental students, however, on the average achieved more than a two-year increase in reading and math scores over a one-year period, while the control group achieved only what would be expected in a usual learning situation: an average increase of nine months to a year.

However, "the real problem," says Dr. Carol Weisbrod, associate professor of psychology at American University," is that it was not a random selection.The problem in evaluating what caused differences in achievement is that students and teachers self-selected into the program rather than being randomly assigned to control and experimantal groups."

Even if the groups had been randomly selected, not enough students have participated as yet for the data to supply accurate and reliable conclusions. This is one reason the project has been expanded this year. But expansion school-wide is probably necessary for the results to be reliable.

Expansion school-wide would certainly appease and please those parents who would like their children to be in the project. Pleasing parents, however, could lead to displeasing some teachers.

"A teacher's individual style is important in working with a child. The materials I use fit with my style and personality. If I'm not comfortable working with the materials, then I can't do a good job," said one non-project teacher. She went on to say, "If the project were expanded school wide, I would leave; I would not be a part of it."

Teacher reluctance to wholesale adoption of a project usually spells death for the project, according to Dr. John Bahner, director of Innovative Programs Division of the Institute for Development of Educational Activities, an affiliate of the Charles F. Kettering Foundation. He stressed that "the school, rather than an individual teacher, is the crucial unit in educational change." Parent help is an important resource for the Murch project, but it also fuels critical fires. Parents donate considerable time per week to the classes (adding up to more than 800 hours in one classroom alone last year). As aides they administer tests and do other clerical tasks, freeing the teacher to work with students individually.

But parent participation gives cause for serious questions as to the applicability of this project to the inner-city where homes with both parents working is the rule rather than the exception. While it's true that paid teacher-aides could replace parent volunteers, the sense of parent involvement in the child's education would be lost.

And it just may be that the remarkable gains in students' achievement scores is due to a parent-placebo, or Hawthorne effect (as it is known in the psychological literature), rather than to the program or materials. Students who have evidence that their parents are actively concerned with their education are more likely to achieve, simply because of the attention they are receiving.

Probably the most potentially dstructive issue for the project is the policy question raised by disgruntled parents who are afraid their children are not getting equal treatment with the project children. They want to know what extra materials are available to the project children, what advantages there are in the student-teacher ratio, and whether it is fair for Home and School Association money to go to these classrooms when they're already getting money from the government.

Controversy growing out of expectations from the federal administration, the faculty, the parents and the school administration have resulted in a rather complicated scenario. All the right buttons have been pushed to make for a situation fraught with conflicts. Murch's experiment may be burned out by its own internal friction before it is fully launched. But if the Murch project is destined to failure, it may be less because of the educational alternatives it offers and more because those alternatives are offered at all.

One parent's solution to the conflict, voiced at a recent Home and School meeting was to drop the whole thing. "This project is tearing the school apart," he said. "I move that we cancel it and give the money back to ESEA!"

Several weeks ago ESEA sent its consulting team to evaluate the project. Parents from each of the six classrooms were invited to attend a conference with the team in order to give them feedback. Parents from outside the project heard of the meeting and appeared so they could voice their differences and criticisms.

One category for evaluation is "community interest and participation." The presence of dissenting voices ironically made for high marks in that category.

ESEA was so impressed by the project's "effectiveness and its adaptability to other schools" that they are ready to push for national validation. The irony would be complete were the project ultimately to fail at Murch while becoming a model for nationwide ESEA projects. CAPTION: Picture 1, Skills are keyed to punchholes on these cards. Once a child masters a skill, the card is punched on the margin so the skewer won't retrieve the card; Picture 2, Sheila Ford, above, devised the key sort system based upon one her husband used as a graduate student to keep track of research.; Picture 3, Two of six experimental project classes at Murch: Teacher aide Bunny Polmer, top, demonstrates pasta-making to kindergarteners learning about food from different countries. Picture 4, In Joyce Campbell's 4-5 combination class, above, one child concentrates on assignment alone; others get together for a group session. By Helen Anrod Jones; Picture 5, Principal Lydia Thornton thinks the Murch project could have "important applications" in other classrooms; Picture 6, Four children collaborate on a math assignment; a fifth reads by herself, above. The Murch project is unique-and controversial-in the way it tailors learning tasks to individuals needs.