History for Dummies

Teacher Chicoria raves about the new program -- and so do his students.
Daniel Kramer

The voice coming from the computer isn't your daddy's history teacher -- or yours, either. Studiedly casual and oh-so-hip, it's more beatnik than Ben Stein:

I was surfin' the Net just last Saturday, see

And I saw the most curious thing.

At a chat room for Georges, two Georges were chatting,

A new President and an old British king.

As Mr. Hipster intones "new President" and "British king," the words helpfully appear on the computer screen, white text on a bright orange background.

Said the Pres, 'Global power,

You mongo head honcho

You call it whatever seems best.

But you've got to admit that our young rebel nation

Has grown up to surpass all the rest.'

Great poetry, it's not. But the Houston Independent School District is welcoming it as the future of education. Last year, four HISD schools piloted Ignite! Learning's computer-based American history course. This year, 23 schools have signed on. More Houston schools are using the two-year-old software than in any other district in the nation. According to Ken Leonard, Ignite! president, the Houston schools are nearly one-fifth of the company's total business.

Ignite! is the brainchild of Houston's own Neil Bush: son of George Senior, little brother of George W. and father of supermodel-in-training Lauren. In a family of overachievers, Neil is the ne'er-do-well, gaining his biggest headlines by embarrassing his prominent relatives. His adventures in the savings and loan industry led to a taxpayer-funded bailout of $1.3 billion and a lifetime ban from the banking world. His divorce last summer revealed his taste for Asian call girls.

In countless interviews, Neil has explained his motivation for starting Ignite!: Dyslexic, he was badly frustrated by traditional school. He has said he saw his son suffer through the same "boring" classes, and he felt a call to do something. So Ignite! designs and promotes software-based curriculum for "hunter/warrior" types -- kids Neil believes are just as smart as the eggheads, but aren't being served by traditional education.

Ignite! works hard to shake things up. There are cartoons, fast-moving graphics and songs. A trench-coat-clad Peter Jennings type delivers a talk on the founding of Jamestown, with a driving hip-hop beat in the background.

A lesson on the division of governmental powers features "Federal Powers Man," a Schwarzenegger-style cartoon hero in a tight red-and-blue leotard. He coins money and wages war until the scene shifts à la Batman and Robin, with "BAM!" exploding in big black letters. "States Rights Man," we learn, is in charge of education. (It's a small irony, considering George W.'s work on behalf of "No Child Left Behind.") Then BAM! Concurrent Powers Woman, who could rival Wonder Woman in the babe department, gets to lock up criminals.

Or take that "chat room for Georges." King George gets his dig in by citing the Beatles as a reason the Brits still rule, then briefly mentions the Monroe Doctrine. But the three-minute "chat" is really a chance for President George to rap about this country's power: "Our lands have grown, and so has our trade. / Our economy's blossomed to such a degree, all the world seeks to lie in its shade."

The lesson about the Constitutional Convention is a would-be pop song, "Fight for Ratification," with lyrics about special interest groups and federalists. There's even a song about Eli Whitney.

"You've got interesting melodies, but the bottom line is, the lyrics are core content," Leonard says.

With dry lyrics and simple melodies, the tunes are far from rock and roll, but for a generation conditioned to think of Britney Spears as a musician, Ignite! just might be on to something. When teacher Marc Chicoria's class at Edison Middle School logs on, no one seems remotely disdainful. A few even seem to be having fun.

"It's better than reading a textbook," explains 14-year-old Mayra Gonzalez as she noodles with her mouse. "Something that I read, I'm just trying to get it over with. But this is actually interesting."

Mayra and her friends actually gasp in excitement when Chicoria tells them they can click on the song about John Winthrop's "City on a Hill." "This is my favorite," Mayra gushes.

"In seven years, I've been trying to get them to remember the City on a Hill and its importance," says Chicoria. "This is the only year they've gotten it."

After a year's pilot program, Ignite! offered the software to HISD for $10,000 per school. When the board balked, the Bush fund-raising powers swung into action. Landry's Restaurants, the Wells Fargo Foundation and Toyota dealership giant Friedkin Companies each donated $25,000. So did former Iranian ambassador Hushang Ansary, a trustee at the George H.W. Bush presidential library. Contributions totaled $115,000, halving the district's expense.

Colette Sayer, president of the Houston Classroom Teachers Association, urged the school board to reject the donation, saying the grant "is not worth the bad public relations."

But even Sayer admits that her criticism is due to the Bush behind the software, not its content: "I'm going to be very blunt. It's because of the name attached to it."

Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, says she heard from people outside her organization who wanted her to oppose the software. But the teachers themselves thought it was effective, she says.

For Ignite!, the Bush name has been a blessing and a curse. Because Neil is Neil, he can get an interview with Katie Couric. At the same time, Ignite! has probably gotten more scrutiny than other companies' software in use at just 111 schools.

Critics note that many schools giving Ignite! a chance are in the Bush family strongholds of Florida and Texas. And, as Neil Bush's divorce papers disclosed, much of Ignite's $30 million capital comes from Bush friends, including the former president himself.

"A sword has two sides," Leonard admits. "Neil is unbelievably passionate about what we're doing. But on the flip side, we knew going into this there would be accusations of name-trading and all of that."

A more serious complaint might be that Ignite! is dumbing down history. When everything is presented in two-minute blurbs, there's little room for nuance -- or even good storytelling. The program's biggest strength may well also be its greatest weakness: It's easily digestible. Even Chicoria, who raves about the program, thinks it will most help students on the margin: kids learning English as a second language, or those with learning disabilities.

Journalist Edward Hume's book School of Dreams chronicles a year at Whitney High, a California school with some of the best test scores in the nation.

After a year with the Ignite! program, Hume reports, Whitney teacher Jenny Shellhamer decided the program was not right for her school or most other eighth-graders. One boy there suggested that it might be valuable for failing students. For most kids, the program "seems to have achieved exactly the opposite of what Bush intended, as far as making school more interesting and engaging," Hume concludes. He quotes one boy as saying Ignite! was too easy -- "boring."

But Whitney kids are hardly typical. When Neil Bush visited there to tout the project, Hume reports, kids hammered him with questions about the savings and loan debacle. (Bush fled the class so quickly, the students told Hume, "he was almost running.")

Educational software is a $1.5 billion industry, says Kathy Mickey, an editor at Simba Information, a market research company. But growth has flattened, she says, because school districts just don't have extra cash to pay for it. "It's not easy for newcomers to break in," she says. "A company like Ignite! is going to face the same thing everybody else does: lack of money, and the need to prove that it works." On these points, the Bush name might not help: "I think it raises some questions and eyebrows as much as it helps."

At HISD, Leonard says, the district upped its participation because test scores improved radically for Ignite! students. But HISD spokeswoman Adriana Villarreal says it's too soon to tell the impact. The district is in the process of evaluating the entire program, she says.

Money may become a factor. Leonard says he's not sure how Ignite! feels about continuing to raise charitable contributions to fund its HISD program. "We are a business," he says. Next year, the company will roll out world history and Texas history; Leonard hopes the Houston schools will sign on for more instead of scaling back.

But few schools have an extra $10,000 to toss around. Edison principal Dan DeLeon is a fan thus far. "You've got sound, speech and video," he explains. "Kids are learning a lot from the outside world that way. If we have the capacity to make learning exactly like that, why wouldn't we?"

But DeLeon pauses when he's asked if he'll use Ignite! next year. "Very possibly," he says. Then he adds the standard educational caveat, one that even a Bush couldn't argue with: "It's all a matter of budgetary constraints."

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