How A War Hero Launched A War On Bad Math Instruction

How A War Hero Launched A War On Bad Math Instruction

John Saxon retired from the military in 1970 and began teaching college students. When they couldn’t do basic math, he wrote them a curriculum that millions of children use today.
Nakonia Hayes
By

In 1990, the Navajo students of Window Rock High School in Fort Defiance, Arizona, asked the author of their calculus book, John Saxon, to be their graduation speaker. The class sponsor had suggested the governor as their speaker, but the students wanted Saxon.

A story in The Arizona Republic explained, “At this high school, as at thousands of other schools around the country, Saxon’s name is spoken with reverence by pupils who credit him with changing completely their views about math.”

Arnell Yazzie, president of the senior class, said he and others taking calculus had lobbied for Saxon’s selection. “He has done so much for us,” Yazzie said. That year, for the first time, 13 high school students had taken the Advanced Placement exam for calculus. A good score on that exam can earn students college credit. They credited their Saxon math books for helping set up that opportunity.

That same year, students at Provo High School in Utah had organized a petition drive demanding Saxon’s “Advanced Mathematics” textbook be retained, rather than replaced, as the administration planned. They succeeded with not only keeping the book but adding the Saxon “Calculus” textbook to the high school series. When Saxon visited the school, the students gave him a welcome that surprised him. His teachers said, “They feel like they know him after using his books.”

In 1992, an Atlanta, Georgia, newspaper wrote about a conflict around “Saxon Math” being put on the state’s approved adoption list. They said a “heretical yearning for ‘learning by heart’ was creeping across the land…relying on old-fashioned memorization and repetition…Proponents don’t see this as a retreat into the past, but a post-modern appropriating of traditions for the effectiveness in the present.”

A Hero to Kids, a Villain to Educrats

Today, the Escondido Charter High School in California has a “John Saxon Day” to honor him. They make creative annual videos that praise “Saxon Math” and post them on YouTube. The BASIS charter schools group, founded in Tucson, Arizona in 1998 consistently show some of the best scores in the country—and world—on standardized tests. They have used “Saxon Math” since their inception.

Among 2,000 newspaper and magazine clippings and personal letters in newspaper-size scrapbooks Saxon Publishers maintain are hundreds of stories about Saxon’s positive impact on thousands of students, teachers, and schools worldwide. Saxon himself collected reams of data beginning in 1981, his first year as an author and publisher, that showed success in public, private, and charter schools that encompassed all “sub-groups” of students.

Yet in a 1995 interview in Philadelphia, Saxon was described by Uri Treisman, a professor of math education at the University of Texas-Austin, as “a lightning rod that creates unbelievable violent polarization.” He added, “There’s a lot of emotion around him, a lot of demonizing.”

Triesman told the reporter it was time to find a middle ground between Saxon and his opponents, who promote reform, progressive, and non-traditional procedures in math education. He said, “It’s time for neutral people to sit down and look at the strengths of both approaches.”

When the reporter asked Saxon to respond, Saxon said, “I was attacked. I was a retired Air Force colonel, a junior college teacher. Surely there couldn’t be anything to my work, because if I was right, they were wrong.” He saw no point in meeting in the middle. That meant his critics were half wrong and he was half right. He didn’t agree with either premise.

In 1996 when Saxon’s death from congestive heart failure was announced, an employee from an opponent’s publishing house was absolutely giddy, suggesting a party to celebrate his death. Some assumed the 15-year-war that began in 1981 between Saxon and the math education establishment would finally be over. Publishers wouldn’t have to face Saxon’s withering demands, which they never accepted, that they put their products up against his in schools and see which one came out on top.

Saxon’s followers across the country said as long as parents protested against fads and unproven materials that used their children as guinea pigs, the war would continue. They noted that parents never protested against “Saxon Math” but so-called “reform math” materials had a history of parent protests. Saxon had long maintained that parents were the only ones who could stop the pattern of destructive math education caused by inept leadership. The professionals wouldn’t do it. They had too much invested in the bad decisions.

Triesman and other reformists couldn’t understand that Saxon wanted that bright-line distinction between them. He knew there is no “middle ground” between right and wrong when it comes to protecting children. Only by having that clear distinction between them and him could parents, teachers, and business leaders choose the values they wanted in a teaching program.

John Saxon Turns Math Warrior

Reporters rarely asked what originally sparked the hostilities. It started with Saxon self-publishing a traditionally based algebra textbook in 1981. He boasted in a teachers’ magazine advertisement that his book would save students from failing algebra, based on proof from a year-long pilot program he had run with 20 schools in Oklahoma.

Math education leaders didn’t like 1) his claim of saving students and 2) his book’s traditional approach. They ridiculed the book in reviews (even though one leader admitted later he hadn’t actually seen the book) and suggested he was ignorant about teaching. He blasted their critiques in letters and in subsequent advertisements. This shocked them. No one had ever responded to them with such frontal assaults.

The reformists lined up against him. That included the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), with its tens of thousands of members and heavy political clout with district, state, and federal offices. Universities’ teacher training programs joined NCTM’s attacks. The war was on.

In the meantime, Saxon’s advertisements, interviews, and favorable press from the likes of President Ronald Reagan, William F. Buckley Jr., Jay Mathews, Chester Finn, Time magazine, Reader’s Digest, and “60 Minutes” with Mike Wallace increased awareness of his new mathematics materials. He used the war against him in a stream of publicity. Reporters loved him. He held no-holds-barred interviews. He was dubbed “the angry man of mathematics.” Being a retired war hero (bomber pilot) made the stories even better.

Within three years Saxon had several textbooks for sale and was a multimillionaire. Small public schools, private schools, charter schools, and more than a million homeschooled students became the main customers for “Saxon Math.” (That is still true today, except now about two million homeschoolers use Saxon.) The rumored selling price of Saxon Publishers when his company was sold in 2004 was $100 million. A fierce competitor bought the company and, unbelievably, rewrote the flagship “Algebra 1” and “Algebra 2” textbooks. Neither book replicates his methods now but both still carry his name.

Math Was John Saxon’s Second Career

A graduate of West Point Military Academy (1949), Saxon had joined the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1943 at age 20. His training as a bomber pilot was ending about the time the war in Europe was ending, so he wasn’t sent overseas. A congressman in his home state of Georgia offered him an appointment to the military academy, so Saxon became an “older” cadet at age 22, when he entered West Point in 1945.

He coined one of his later mantras: ‘Beautiful explanations do not lead to understanding.’

He graduated with an engineering degree and was assigned as a flight instructor before being sent as a bomber pilot to Korea. There, he received the highest medal awarded in the Air Force, the Distinguished Flying Cross, plus a Bronze Star and numerous other medals. He earned a degree in aeronautical engineering and became a test pilot for the new jet airplanes in the 1950s. In the early 1960s, he earned a master’s degree in electrical engineering and was assigned to the U.S. Air Force Academy as an engineering instructor. From there, he went to Vietnam.

He retired from the military in 1970, and accepted a part-time night job teaching algebra at Oscar Rose Junior College near Norman, Oklahoma, in 1971. Having taught at the U.S. Air Force Academy and as a military flight instructor, Saxon said he gave his first class a “beautiful explanation” on how to solve a problem. Twenty minutes later, the students couldn’t work a similar problem. They couldn’t remember the steps. After several efforts to teach more beautiful explanations, he coined one of his later mantras: “Beautiful explanations do not lead to understanding.”

He was stunned by his students’ lack of basic math skills. He knew they needed solid knowledge of algebra to advance to higher learning in college courses. Back in his office, he threw the textbook against the wall. He had to figure out how to help his students.

Finally, one day a young woman in his class asked if he would create a paper that would help her understand the procedures step-by-step so she could use those when doing her homework. Other students wanted the worksheets. He found they needed to practice the procedures over a period of days, then repeat that practice several days later and then several days later again. They also needed to learn parts of a concept in incremental steps over several days or even weeks instead of trying to swallow it like a “hunk”—the way chapter books present it.

In the process of making worksheets with his “incremental learning” and “continuous review,” he realized he had created two manuscripts the college print shop could collate. The paperback books were titled “Incremental Algebra” and “Intermediate Algebra” and sold for $7.65.

A Man with a Math Book and a Dream

He decided students should learn algebra before they get to college. He pulled his two manuscripts into one and traveled hundreds of miles across Oklahoma seeking teachers and administrators who would pilot his manuscript. He found 20 schools that would work with his year-long pilot program during 1980-81.

Saxon borrowed money from his children and mortgaged his home to pull together $80,000.

He then convinced the Oklahoma Federation of Teachers’ office to monitor the tests and results. At the end of the year, the results were amazing. Teachers and administrators were thrilled, including the federation (a teachers union). Fired up, Saxon sent out press releases. Now he just needed to publish his manuscript.

He couldn’t convince any of six New York publishers to print his book, but one publisher offered to show him how to self-publish it. Saxon borrowed money from his children and mortgaged his home to pull together $80,000. He sent the manuscript to China for printing and began running advertisements in mathematics education journals.

He pointed out that his textbook had no colors in it, no pictures, no artwork, but its user-friendly design would help the parents who supervised math homework. Instead of wasting space and money on color and pictures, he had used that space to show steps needed to solve a problem. His explanations were based on historically proven and familiar methods. Math-phobic elementary teachers even liked it.

Elite mathematics education leaders declared that a monkey could teach from the simplistic “Saxon Math” book. They said it was boring and would not help children become “creative” learners. He said the reformists hadn’t been able to do that for 20 years, so maybe his way was the right way.

Math education leaders said Saxon didn’t understand how to teach mathematics since he didn’t have “teaching credentials.” Yet he, unlike them, actually knew what “real world” math problems were, having used math as a wartime pilot in life and death circumstances. Of course he honored creative thinking. He was an engineer.

Saxon encouraged more of the education leaders to work in the “real world” for a better understanding of how to teach mathematics because, he said, results matter in the real world. That meant results, not methodology, should be the basis of curriculum decisions.

A Premise Worth Millions

A major fight for Saxon, other than protecting his books’ traditional format, centered on the reformists’ total redesign of math education as a vehicle to provide social justice for girls and minorities.

He was furious about the wholesale change of mathematics education for the country without proof that the change would improve learning for all students.

Girls and minorities couldn’t learn math like white males and Asians, they said. Girls and minorities didn’t have the “learning styles” of analytic thinking and deductive reasoning like white males and Asians. Their premise was that girls and minorities like to talk, do group work, write in journals, and work with projects. Therefore, starting in 1989 the NCTM codified “national standards” called “Curriculum and Evaluation Standards.” The federal government “encouraged” states with grants to adopt the new program, a precursor to today’s Common Core. Forty businesses and famous persons like astronaut Sally Ride joined them.

The NCTM program was financed with $100 million from the National Science Foundation. It would be a huge and expensive makeover in teaching programs, yet no peer-reviewed research or proof of the NCTM premise was ever produced. The fad of “learning styles” was later debunked.

In full-page advertisements and interviews, Saxon repeatedly called the program sexist and racist. He was furious about the wholesale change of mathematics education for the country without proof that the change would improve learning for all students.

Twenty-five years later, reformists have become so embedded with political and philanthropic support because of Common Core that it is unlikely any one person can fight their ideology as vehemently and as publicized as Saxon did. The mere mention of his name can still bring critical remarks.

His Legacy Remains

Saxon Publishers distributed seven million textbooks for K-12 math until it was sold in 2004. As long as third-edition copies of Saxon products can be purchased across the Internet, his legacy remains intact. No textbook’s content published before 2010, when Common Core was implemented, can be “aligned” with Common Core standards. Therefore, Saxon books published before 2010 are not Common Core-aligned. The new publisher sends supplemental materials teachers can use so they can say the books are aligned. But the “books” aren’t.

One of Saxon’s friends was Jaime Escalante, the math instructor in a Los Angles barrio high school, whose unbelievable success with Hispanic students was portrayed in the movie “Stand and Deliver.” It helped establish his legacy. Saxon supporters have often wished a movie could be made about him. Perhaps then people could see where his heart was, but why he had to use a clenched fist to help America’s children in math education. Then his legacy might also be memorialized.

The complete biography on which this article is based is “John Saxon’s Story: A Genius of Common Sense in Math Education,” by Nakonia (Niki) Hayes. The author can be contacted at [email protected]

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