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.)