At White Flint Movie Theater No. 1 in Montgomery County, the star one recent morning was a large gray-faced doll named "Astro", who is supposed to help kindergarten children learn to read.
Astro is an imaginary little man from outer space, explained his developer Judith Brown, a teacher from South San Francisco, Calif. He has detachable ears, a bright green vest, and pennants that stick out of his pocket.
"He comes to the classroom in the middle of the night," Brown told a group of attentive teachers, "carrying a bright pink bag with the lesson for the day."
Each morning, as part of her reading program, called Alphaphonics, Brown said the children sing a song about Astro's bag and use what's inside it for the day's lesson.
After 26 weeks of lessons, she said, all of the children in her kindergarten not only recogniez all 26 letters in the alphabet, but know how to write them and what sounds they represent. Many of the youngsters are beginning to read, she said, even though most schools don't teach reading until first grade.
"The children believe in Astro like a fairy tale figure," Brown said. "They really do learn from him."
During the past two days Brown and the developers of 18 other innovative school programs took turns describing their wares at an unusual educational trade fair, at the White Flint movies in North Bethesda. It was sponsored by the U.S. Office of Education and attended by about 450 teachers and administrators from Washington, Maryland and Virginia.
"The federal government has been making grants to develop new programs for a long time," said Lee Wickline, director of the federal office that financed the conference. "Now, when we find some of them are effective, we want other schools to know about them . . . We're not out to sell one program to solve all problems. But we strongly believe that local school districts should know they can choose from many good alternatives."
Wickline's agency, which has an $11.5 million budget this year, is called the Division of Educational Replication of the U.S. Office of Education. It calls its efforts to publicize successful new programs the National Diffusion Network.
The programs considered worthy of being publicized - there are 104 so far - are called exemplary projects. Their staffs are developer/demonstrators. The people who do the publicizing in each state and arrange conferences like the one at White Flint are called state facilitators.
Despite this heavy dose of jargon, many of the demonstrators sounded like salesmen and made a straight forward hard-sell.
"It's easy. Our program works. We have the results. It's so cost-effective," said Randy Abbott, a representative of STAMM. Systematic Teaching and Measuring Mathematics, a program developed by the Jefferson County schools near Denver. "As the Bell Telelphone system says, 'Our system is the solution.'"
The representative of another program, The New Model Me, said her curriculum produces "better behavior." "It doesn't happen overnight," said Jean Lahr, who works for the Lakewood, Ohio, school system. "But time and again the results are significant."
Her program tries to develop the "skills and attitudes about behavior needed for constructive living," according to its brochure. One of its activitis is the "bomb shelter dilemma" - students have to decide who should survive in a shelter that has food for seven but into which 10 people are jammed.
Generally, the program being touted at White Flint were of two types. Some were descendants of the reforms of the late 1960s, offering enrichment and "alternatives," informal teaching arrangements and nonintellectual goals, such as better decision-making.
Others fit in the current "back-to-basics" wave, providing highly organized programs to teach basic skills.
"People don't talk about innovative programs like they used to." Wickline said. "They're not making quantum leaps and reforming the world . . . I think peoples's expectations have been lowered considerably based on the experience of the past few years."
Still, said Vera Hall, a reading specialist for the Maryland Department of Education, "Packaging means a lot in education, and you really have to sell something to get it adopted. If something doesn't come with a lot of flash, (school) people might not think it's valuable."