Recognizing an American Hero: John Saxon

John Saxon
John Saxon

Seeking recognition for a hero in mathematics education may be a waste of time since so many Americans’ eyes glaze over at the mere mention of the word “math.” Too many claim they don’t like math, can’t do math, or don’t want even to think about math. (This phenomenon is found only in America. Interestingly, such attitudes are not heard in Third World countries that produce strong math students.)

So what’s the point in looking at an American math hero now? Maybe recognizing a math teacher-turned-millionaire-author-and-publisher who took a beating for 15 years from the powerful math education establishment will help refuel the parents and citizens—those special “Davids”—who are stepping up to fight the unified Goliaths of Common Core.

His enemies, who are among today’s Goliaths, will sneer upon hearing his name: John Saxon. They still refuse to accept the results of his “common sense genius” in teaching K-12 mathematics.

Saxon literally popped onto the national math education scene unexpectedly and uninvited in 1981 after self-publishing his first algebra textbook. Reformist authors, who quickly became his opponents, were claiming that making math more fun and “relevant” to girls and minorities was the answer to getting higher scores on international tests. He said his proven book was user-friendly and historically-based and was the answer for all students. They said his ideas worked only for white males and Asians because American girls and minorities couldn’t think analytically or with deductive reasoning. He called them racist and sexist. War was declared on Saxon with all the might of federal, state, and local resources of the math education leadership.

He had no idea that he, in turn, would ultimately choose to be a catalyst for the “math wars” that erupted among parents, school districts, and state textbook committees in the 1990s, and that the results of his promoting parent empowerment for a decade might help set up the battles by parents against Common Core.

Saxon was simply a retired U.S. Air Force officer who had begun teaching algebra to students in night classes at Oscar Rose Junior College in Oklahoma in 1970. Having taught engineering at the U.S. Air Force Academy, he discovered woeful deficiencies in his community college students’ basic math skills. Determining they were capable of learning but that they had not been taught those basic skills, he began creating specially-designed worksheets of problems for his students over the next five years, with step-by-step procedures and a use of creative repetition for continuous practice. By 1975, he had a manuscript that the junior college print shop mimeographed and collated for the students.

Then in 1980, after a year-long pilot study in 20 Oklahoma public schools with amazing results (monitored by the Oklahoma chapter of the American Federation of Teachers), Saxon was ready to publish his book in hardback for any school that taught a first year algebra course. He was rebuffed by six publishers in New York City because he wasn’t “a member of a math education committee.” One other publisher did suggest, however, that he publish the book himself. Borrowing $80,000, Saxon did just that. When he died in 1996, Saxon Publishers in Norman, Oklahoma, had sales of $27 million. When his company was sold in 2004, the reported selling price was $100 million.

For those 15 years as a teacher, author, and publisher, Saxon found himself on the defensive against not only government bureaucrats, but the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), a powerful special interest group with political ties to the U.S. Department of Education and the National Science Foundation (NSF). The followers of NCTM were receiving large federal grants to write reform math materials that promoted equity over excellence as the new American goal in mathematics. They did not want to share their bounty and prestige with an outsider who wasn’t even “trained” as a teacher. Worse, he disagreed with their equity ideology as the new function of math education.

They attacked his traditional content with no pictures as boring and “drill and kill.” He had refused to put color photos in his books, saying that such space and costs should be used for showing examples on how to work the problems rather than promoting social justice. He insisted on incremental development with one lesson per day, his unique creative repetition, and no separate chapters which he called “hunk learning”—i.e., students trying to consume a major concept and moving on to the next hunk even if they hadn’t digested the previous one. He required a test after every five lessons so reteaching, if needed, could be planned immediately. And, unbelievably, students were not allowed to use calculators for daily work or tests until the eighth grade. (That’s still true today with Saxon Math.)

Saxon scoffed when reformists insisted that historically-proven mathematics, which had been developed over 2,000 years by diverse cultures from around the world, was effective only with “white males” in America—and “Asians.” Then, he would explode with anger over what he called disastrous teaching materials and methods being purchased without proof of their results.

The biggest surprise to the leaders was when Saxon bought full-page advertisements in mathematics journals, magazines and major newspapers to respond to the charges laid against him and his work. As a World War II veteran, West Point graduate, Korean War combat pilot awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, and a Vietnam veteran, Saxon was a fully trained and experienced warrior who was now fighting “a good war” for children in American mathematics education. Later described as the “George Patton of math education,” Saxon saw no purpose in losing any battle and was not averse to launching a frontal assault. He often got bloodied, but so did they.

As a man with three degrees in engineering, he also knew about the use of mathematics in the real world, including flying airplanes in life and death situations. He ridiculed the elitists’ feigned “real world” problems in textbooks. Saxon wasn’t about to back down from those he thought were promoting their ideology in textbooks and not proving their programs’ results before launching them into schools. “Results matter,” he kept saying, and he had reams of results to show that his textbooks were working.

He constantly called on parents to step forward and fight the new “fuzzy math” programs. Some parents finally did come out swinging in California and in 1994 led a major change in that state’s curriculum standards. That parental action is being repeated now across America regarding Common Core.

Some of his opponents literally cheered when he died. They still hate him today, 18 years after his death. Schools of education that train teachers dismiss his work even though many of his warnings about their programs have come true:

  • Use of calculators too early ruins students’ acquisition of basic skills, many of which must be learned by memorization, such as multiplication facts and mental math.
  • Not understanding the importance of algebra—true algebra—at the eighth grade level as the gateway subject for later entry into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) would prevent many students from entering those fields and leave America short-handed for individuals who could help provide growth and development of the country.
  • Turning teacher-facilitated, rather than teacher-led, classrooms into discovery fun fests with lots of conversation, written explanations of problem-solving, and a focus on non-competitive, differentiated learning found math classrooms that included the weakest to the gifted student. “White males,” gifted children, and Asians were effectively ignored. Process, not the results, was to be enjoyed. Saxon warned this would cause both girls and boys of all races to be in remedial math classes in college, which would negate many of their career choices. Seventy to ninety percent of community college students are indeed enrolled in remedial math today. Up to forty percent must take it in four-year colleges. Common Core proponents claim they will change that statistic—with their weakened math program that even their leaders admit won’t prepare students for STEM careers.

John Saxon’s Story, a genius of common sense in math education, is the biography of a man who fought for his country in three wars and then, in an unexpected second career, for American children in mathematics education. He became, and still is, a real hero to millions of children:

A class of eighth graders in a Spokane, WA, Catholic school put his algebra book on the church’s altar at Thanksgiving in 1985 because of their appreciation for its impact on their learning. The Window Rock High School Navajo students in Fort Defiance, AZ, chose him as their graduation speaker over the state’s governor in 1992. His materials are used by one million homeschooled students today and his textbooks are found in Arizona’s successful BASIS charter schools, as well as in private schools and smaller public schools across the country.

The biography is filled with facts and stories of his successes, as well as an honest portrayal of a colorful, eccentric man “cursed with clarity” who proved to be a born teacher as well as a born warrior. All proceeds from the biography go to West Point’s Department of Mathematical Sciences in honor of LTC (Ret.) John Harold Saxon, Jr. More can be learned about John Saxon and the book at http://saxonmathwarrior.com. (A free 16-page booklet can also be downloaded.)

14 thoughts on “Recognizing an American Hero: John Saxon

    1. There are 32 pages of endnotes included in the biography, which was based on 2000 newspaper and magazine articles, plus extensive interviews with his family and former employees.

      1. So I’d have to purchase your book in order to verify the claims that you make?

        1. I did reply earlier but it’s not showing up so I’ll try again. If you have a couple of items to discuss, I’ll try to help. If it’s many, you will need to read the book. I really don’t want to get into a long discussion on issues that are clearly explained in the book that took 21 months to publish. You might also check my website.

          1. Beware of the ‘communications’ and ‘political science’ credentialed, expert educators who like to debate nonsense with you. It’s part of change management for the common good (of the ruling elite that is). When they lose the debate they usually resort to time waste management. It’s a form of recycling for sustainable development.

          2. My thoughts exactly. I spent 20 years trying to defend my side of the issue. I reached the point of saying, “No more defense moves. I’m going on the offense. That’s one reason I wrote the book; the second was to get get John Saxon the recognition he deserves.

          3. Good for you!! Yes, no one ever won a war against a group of ‘common civil society’ thugs muddling through to their utopian hell by playing defense. I love how they forget they are pawns helping the big boys get the power and I look forward to meeting them in the gulag where they just won’t understand why big daddy didn’t stay loyal to them. We can cry over the scrap of bread together.

  1. John Saxon was a hero! How would he feel to find out that his Saxon math method has been aligned to the Common Core Standards?

    1. Please help spread the word that K-8 books have NOT been aligned to the CC Standards. Nancy Larson and Stephen Hake as the original authors have maintained their control over the content and will stay true to the “Saxon method.” The publishers are putting out CC supplemental materials for Saxon, however, so they can claim that Saxon is “aligned.” Teachers do not have to use the material. The Alg. 1 and Alg. 2 texts ceased being true Saxon materials when the publishers had the books rewritten by “development houses” several years ago. They call those books the “4th Editions,” but that is a misnomer since they do not follow John Saxon’s first three editions (prior to 2004) in style or substance. (I always encourage people to buy the second or third editions of the Algebra books.) Frank Wang’s Calculus book is still okay as is John Saxon’s Advanced Mathematics book. The publishers created their own version of a Geometry book, which has nothing to do with John Saxon. Since these textbooks are so expensive to create and print, the only way they can be “aligned” with CC at this point is with supplemental inserts or handbooks, all of which, remember, can be ignored by devoted Saxon teachers.

    2. Niki Hayes is correct. Saxon Math still lives unadulterated from Common Core. Stephen Hake has control over Math 5/4, 6/5, 7/6, and 8/7. They are great books. John Saxon’s Algebra 1 3rd edition, Algebra 2 3rd edition, Advanced Math, and Calculus are all still available for purchase from the publisher.

      Beware Algebra 1 4th, Alg 2 4th, and the new Geometry book. They are not John Saxon books.

      1. Thanks Edward and Niki!

        Perhaps you have some information I do not. I spoke with two Saxon reps this year at a textbook convention. They both stated emphatically that all of Saxon (the public school branded) is aligned to CCSS.
        There is someone else to whom you should speak. Tina Hollenbeck has queried over a thousand textbook companies to find out their stance on the Common Core and if their books are aligned. Public school Saxon is aligned. The homeschool version is not just yet. Tina’s website is: http://www.commoncoreproject.com
        Don’t get me wrong, I am a Saxon enthusiast and have used Saxon for years. I would agree that the older editions are the way to go.

        1. They claim alignment exists because they are publishing inserts or booklets that teachers can use with Saxon Math books (if they so choose). The books’ content is NOT aligned with CC. For one thing, rewriting them is a monumental task, cannot be done quickly, and will be terribly expensive for the company. It’s called a sales ploy. Stephen Hake, the grades 4-8 author, has assured me he has not participated in any rewriting of his textbooks.

        2. I should add the Calculus book by Frank Wang (and John Saxon) has not been/is not being rewritten for Common Core. Of course, Common Core doesn’t plan on students getting past mid-Algebra 2 in their math standards, so the publishers don’t have to work about anything past Algebra 2. Parents and teachers just have to avoid any edition of Alg. 1 and Alg. 2 published as of 2004. Those aren’t “Saxon” created books. The content of those might be undergoing an alignment to Common Core, but I doubt it due to the sheer cost of printing new textbooks.

  2. I’m feeling a little hyperbolic, so I’ll just say that the people who created Reform Math are the mud on John Saxon’s shoes.

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