Math’s Angry Man

By David Hill — September 01, 1993 22 min read
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If one were to make up a list of John Saxon’s personality traits, tact would not be among them. “I come on real strong,” he admits. “I’m very abrasive. I’ve made a lot of people mad as hell.”

Saxon, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, is a controversial math textbook publisher whose back-to-the basics philosophy elicits both praise and scorn—and not much in between. To his supporters, Saxon is the Ross Perot of math education, a maverick who is unafraid to take on the “math establishment.” But to his critics, he is a dangerous man, a drill-and-practice fanatic who would lead math students back to the Dark Ages.

Saxon, 69, seems to relish his notoriety. He regularly attacks the 100,000-member National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, whose standards are closely followed by the major textbook publishers. And he lashes out against state textbook adoption committees, most of which have rejected Saxon’s books because they don’t follow the NCTM guidelines. “The math educators in America reject my claims of success because I am succeeding where they have failed,” he asserts. “I am a very real threat to these people because their egos are at risk.”

Yet Saxon has managed to turn his anger into a multimillion-dollar-a-year business. He says his books are used in more than 8,000 schools nationwide. From a former lumberyard in Norman, Okla., Saxon oversees a staff of 40, including Executive Vice President Frank Wang, a 28-year-old mathematician who gave up a promising career in academia to oversee the day-to-day affairs of Saxon Publishers Inc. Polite and soft-spoken, Wang makes no apologies for his blustery boss: “A lot of people look at him and say, ‘Look at all the people he’s offended. If only he’d been nicer to people, if he didn’t make a big ruckus. If only he’d played the game a little bit more.’ But if he’d done all those things, we wouldn’t be here right now.”

John Saxon has just woken up from a morning nap when I arrive to interview him. As he ushers me into his large, windowless office, he explains that his heart problems—he has had several bypass operations—have forced him to slow down a bit. A dead ringer for U.S. Sen. John Glenn, Saxon is wearing a maroon polo shirt, khaki hiking shorts, leather hiking boots, and white socks. After a few groggy minutes, he quickly comes to life.

In person, Saxon can be downright charming. A Georgia native, he has a thick southern accent and an aw-shucks quality about him that make me wonder what all the fuss is about. But when he gets angry—which is often—his face tightens up and his voice gets loud, and the southern charm temporarily disappears. When he pounds his fist on his desk to emphasize a point, I half wonder if the desk will survive.

Saxon talks in an endless stream-ofconsciousness. He’ll begin one story, which reminds him of another story, so he’ll start telling that one instead. At any given moment, he’s likely to get completely off track, as if he has so much on his mind that he just has to let it all come out at once.

Eventually, Saxon explains how it is that a former Air Force officer became a crusading publisher of math textbooks. When he retired from the military in 1970, Saxon had, among other things, spent five years as a test pilot, flown 55 combat missions in Korea, and taught electrical engineering at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Saxon enjoyed teaching, so he accepted a position as an algebra instructor at Oscar Rose Junior College (now Rose State College) in Midwest City, Okla. But at the end of his first semester, only 10 percent of the students had passed the final exam.

Saxon decided to change his entire approach to teaching mathematics. Instead of introducing one new concept a day, the way traditional math books do, he resolved to spend just a few minutes at the beginning of each class on new material; students would use the remainder of the period working on material they had already learned. “I finally figured out,” he says, “that you learn to work problems by working them repetitively, over a long period of time.” This concept remains the heart of the Saxon approach to math.

Near the end of his first year as a math instructor, one of Saxon’s students urged him to write down some of the math problems he had developed. As he remembers it: “She said, ‘Why don’t you write some words, so that if we forget how to do the problems, we can go back and read them?’ Now, had she said, ‘Why don’t you write a book?’—well, I knew I wasn’t capable of writing a book. I’d never written a book. I was not qualified. I didn’t have a doctorate. I was a retired Air Force officer—and she wanted me to write a math book? That’s ridiculous!”

But Saxon did write a college-level algebra textbook, and it was eventually published by Prentice Hall. When he tried to peddle a high school version of the book, however, the major publishing companies turned him down flat. Undeterred, he decided to publish the book himself. Combining a small inheritance with a second mortgage on his home, Saxon managed to come up with $80,000, enough to print 10,000 copies of his Algebra I textbook. Then, in the summer of 1981, he hit the road, going from school to school to try to persuade teachers to use his book.

Fifteen thousand miles later, 20 Oklahoma teachers agreed to test Saxon’s book side-by-side with another algebra textbook. Participating in the study were 1,360 9th graders, 841 of whom used the regular textbook and 519 of whom used Saxon’s. At the end of the study, the students were tested, and the results—certified by the Oklahoma Federation of Teachers—showed that the Saxon students outscored the others by more than two to one.

Armed with his test data, Saxon began seeking publicity. He wrote a letter to conservative author and publisher William F. Buckley Jr., who was so impressed that he managed to secure a $6,500 grant to help Saxon defray his expenses. Buckley also encouraged Saxon to write an article about his math method for The National Review; Saxon wrote two of them, and they struck a chord with the Review’s conservative readers. Buckley championed Saxon in his syndicated column, writing: “He will probably figure as prominently in the history of mathematical pedagogy as Hyman Rickover in the history of the development of nuclear submarines.” Perhaps more importantly, Buckley printed the address of the Oklahoma City book depository from which readers could order Saxon’s book.

In December 1981, Time magazine weighed in with a piece titled “New Angle on Algebra: One teacher takes on the math Establishment.” The article portrayed Saxon as “an unlikely mathematical messiah” with “a visionary gleam” in his eyes. Saxon was thrilled with the publicity. After the article came out, he recalls, “I sold 25,000 books the next year and got my house back from the bank.”

Saxon’s business has grown steadily ever since. By 1986, he had published four high school math textbooks, and, two years later, he moved his operation out of his Norman home and into a regular office space. In 1991, he bought the former lumberyard that currently houses his expanding company. Saxon now publishes 13 math books for students in kindergarten through 12th grade, and he recently came out with a high school physics book that uses the same incremental approach as the math books. Eventually, he plans to branch out into other non-math subjects, including language arts, history, and geography. “We’re undergoing a transition from a young, fledgling company to a more mature one,” Frank Wang says. “But we still have a ways to go.”

Despite his outsider image, it’s clear that Saxon is selling lots of books. “We’ve been up more than 20 percent every year,” he says. “Last year, we were up 40 percent, and, the year before that, we were up 60 percent. We’ll be doing 30 million dollars, easy, in three years.”

In appearance, Saxon’s books are to mainstream texts what The Wall Street Journal is to USA Today. His Algebra I book, now in its second edition, is a sea of gray ink; not a speck of color is to be found, and photographs are conspicuously absent. And that’s just the way Saxon wants it. Flipping through a copy of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich’s 7th grade textbook Mathematics Plus, Saxon mocks the book’s colorful graphics. “This is just total crap,” he says. “Look at all the pictures! Here’s one of a girl in a wheelchair. I guess that takes care of all the disadvantaged people!” He turns to another page and practically erupts, his voice oozing with sarcasm and contempt. “Lookie there! Ha, ha, ha, isn’t that something! We’ve got an eagle, and he’s eating pancakes with butter on them. And it doesn’t have a goddamn thing to do with the price of dog meat. It has absolutely nothing to do with anything! A moron could do better than this.”

“Are the pictures a total waste?” I ask.

“Oh yes,” Saxon says. “They are a total distraction.”

Saxon is equally adamant in his opposition to “real world” math problems. He cites a word problem from the HBJ book: “A boy packed dishes in a warehouse. He packed 17 dishes in each box. He had 1,433 dishes to pack. How many boxes did he require?

“Now, think of the dark warehouse there,” Saxon says, “and the lone light bulb hanging down. And way in the back, this boy is packing dishes. Somewhere out in the darkness, someone is watching him to make sure that he puts 17 dishes in every box and to make sure that he doesn’t break any dishes. Now, I have never worked in a warehouse. I have never packed 17 of anything in any box and neither has the teacher and neither has the student. It’s asinine! This is not in anyone’s real world. All of these ‘realworld’ problems, they’re pseudo realworld problems.”

Saxon maintains that such problems, like graphics and photographs, only distract students from the main task at hand, which is to learn math. “You must design the problem so that the concept is the only thing that’s real in the problem,” he asserts. His books, therefore, are filled with word problems that seem to exist in no particular time or space at all. For example: “Four-fifths of the pixies in the kingdom had sad faces. If 840 pixies had sad faces, how many pixies lived in the kingdom?” Or: “A 130 percent increase in the doll population resulted in a total of 1,610 dolls. How many dolls were present before the population increased?”

Many of Saxon’s word problems tend to use words that students may never have heard before. One problem in the Algebra I book, for instance, considers “the ratio of the erudite to the unlettered.” In the book’s preface, Saxon defends this practice: “If students protest that they don’t know what the words mean, tell them that it makes no difference. If these words bother students, they should use eaters and uncles or any two words that begin with e and u. If students learn to work word problems that contain unfamiliar words, they will not have trouble with chemistry problems containing words such as sulfur dioxide and trinitrotoluene.”

Probably the most controversial aspect of Saxon’s approach to math is its use of what he calls “gentle repetition.” New topics are introduced in bits and pieces, and old concepts are constantly reviewed. “Instead of having 20 problems illustrating a new concept,” he says, “we have 24 or 25 review problems and only four to six problems of the new kind. Certainly, four to six problems of the new kind are not enough for the students to ‘get it’ right away, but, since topics are never dropped in the Saxon books and are practiced in every subsequent problem set, by the end of the year, the students do ‘get it.’ “

Critics of Saxon’s approach maintain that “gentle repetition” is nothing more than another term for “drill and practice” or “rote learning.” Hogwash, says Saxon. The naysayers, he says, “don’t realize that there is a difference between practice, which is thoughtful, considered repetition, and drill, which is blind, mindless repetition.” Saxon scoffs at the NCTM’s Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics and Professional Standards for Teaching Mathematics, which call for “a shift toward mathematical reasoning—away from merely memorizing procedure” and “a shift toward conjecturing, inventing, and problem solving—away from an emphasis on mechanistic answer-finding.”

“I know of no data that supports the idea that the art of problem solving can be taught,” Saxon responds. “If we are not well-grounded in facts, our abilities to think and reason are hampered.” Frank Wang, who calls the “mindless repetition” charge against Saxon’s books “an oversimplification,” says: “One of the big buzzwords now in the education world is ‘problem solving.’ Well, we say you become a good problem solver by solving problems.”

NCTM President Mary Lindquist accuses Saxon of “using techniques that have been used for years. There’s no great revelation in what he’s doing.” She believes his books are “too prescriptive.” “There’s no one right way to teach math,” she says. “I can’t imagine a curriculum working for every student in every situation.” Saxon’s program, she adds, “certainly doesn’t go along with what research is telling us about how students learn.”

Saxon brushes aside such criticism. For him, the bottom line is that his math books get results. Schools that have used his books, he claims, show that it is possible “within three years” to: increase the number of students enrolled in academic mathematics by 50 percent to 100 percent; increase college board scores in mathematics by 20 percent to 50 percent; double enrollment in both calculus and physics classes; increase enrollment in chemistry by 20 percent to 50 percent; and decrease the number of students in nonacademic math courses by more than 50 percent. To prove his point, he has a list of schools that use his books and the results they have achieved.

Window Rock High School, located on the vast Navajo Indian Reservation in northern Arizona, began using Saxon’s math books in 1985. At the time, the school’s average score on the math section of the ACT was 11.6 (out of a possible 36 points). By 1990, the average score had jumped to 18.2, and John Saxon had become a hero to the school’s 890 students. The senior class went so far as to invite Saxon to speak at its graduation ceremony, an offer the publisher gladly accepted. When he arrived, the students lined up to get his autograph, treating him more like a movie star than a publisher of textbooks.

If Saxon’s books are so good, why is it that they have been rejected by nearly half of the 22 states that adopt textbooks at the state level? Saxon blames the NCTM. “The adoption states do not list goals,” he says. “They do not ask publishers to write books that meet goals. They specify methods and pedagogy. They say, ‘If you use this method, and you use this pedagogy, we will buy your books.’ Now, the methods and pedagogy that they demand come from the NCTM. And it’s pie in the sky. It’s totally ridiculous. It’s nonsense.”

It’s true that many states simply follow the NCTM guidelines when assessing math textbooks for adoption. An evaluator for the state of Virginia, for example, cited the following reasons for turning down one of Saxon’s algebra books: “The text does not adhere to the NCTM Standards using manipulatives, calculators, computers, discovery methods.... The review sections are not grouped. The text would not attract the attention of the average 9th grader because it has no color or real people.”

But the NCTM Standards are hardly the “nonsense” that Saxon would have people believe. Endorsed by such groups as the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, the American Association of Physics Teachers, the American Chemical Society, and the National Catholic Educational Association, the Standards are the foundation of the current push to reform mathematics education. One NCTM document sums up the goals of the Standards this way:

“Student performance will shift from a narrow focus on routine skills to development of broad-based mathematical power. Among other things, students will be able to perform mental calculations and estimates with proficiency; know which mathematical methods are appropriate in particular contexts; use calculators and computer software confidently and appropriately to perform mathematical tasks; and make decisions based upon the collection, representation, and interpretation of real data.

“Teacher performance will shift from authoritarian models based on ‘transmission of knowledge’ and ‘drill and practice’ to student-centered methods featuring ‘stimulation of learning’ and ‘active exploration.’ Teachers will help students learn how to verbalize their mathematical ideas; explore mathematical questions with careful reasoning and disciplined understanding; and understand that some mathematical questions have more than one right answer.”

Clearly, Saxon and the NCTM differ in several key areas. In Saxon’s program, students don’t use calculators until they take Algebra I; the NCTM recommends the use of “appropriate calculators” as early as kindergarten. Saxon likes to think of his program as “teacher proof” because of its heavy emphasis on textbooks. The NCTM doesn’t believe that textbooks should drive instruction: “Rather, other materials that support the standards, such as manipulatives and courseware, must be developed, in addition to new textbooks.” Further, some statements in the Standards seem to be not-so-subtle digs at Saxon’s method. For instance: “In many classrooms, learning is conceived of as a process in which students passively absorb information, sorting it in easily retrievable fragments as a result of repeated practice and reinforcement.”

Despite Saxon’s denunciation of the Standards, several of his supporters told me that they believe his books are more or less compatible with the guidelines. “He does most of what they say should be done,” says Alice Jasmer, a math teacher at Window Rock High School. She thinks the rift between Saxon and the NCTM is more of “a personal thing” because the NCTM leadership has criticized his books.

Not surprisingly, most of the schools that use Saxon’s books tend to be either public schools in non-adoption states or private schools, which are exempt from state textbook guidelines. A partial list of Saxon schools, provided by the company, includes: Provo (Utah) High School; Blackfoot (Idaho) High School; Santa Fe (N.M.) Preparatory School; Cheyenne Mountain High School in Colorado Springs, Colo.; and Governor French Academy in Belleville, Ill. The program also seems to appeal to Christian educators: A list of Saxon schools in Pennsylvania includes about 10 Christian institutions.

Tyrone, Pa., a blue-collar town of about 6,000, lies in a picturesque valley just north of Altoona, in the central part of the state. Once a bustling railroad center, Tyrone—with its tree-lined streets and two-story clapboard houses—is now quiet.

I went to Tyrone because the town’s four elementary schools and one 7-12 high school all use Saxon’s books. My tour guide was Nancy Smith, a former math teacher who now works full time as a Saxon field representative in the state of Pennsylvania. Smith’s enthusiasm for the Saxon program is matched only by that of her husband, Neil, who happens to be principal of the high school.

At Adams Elementary School, I sat in on a 2nd grade class taught by Merle Louise Ammerman, a 29-year veteran. The classroom walls were covered with charts and graphs the students had made; one graph tracked the daily temperatures since February, while another kept track of the students’ “wake-up times.” The students—I counted 22 of them—were all white except for one African-American boy and one Asian girl.

Ammerman asked the students to move their chairs to the front of the room so they could see the blackboard. It was time for the “Morning Meeting,” a 15- to 20-minute math activity in which, according to Saxon literature, “the children practice skills related to time, temperature, money, counting, patterning, and problem solving.” The meeting is used in kindergarten through 3rd grade, and it is separate from the actual math lesson, which comes later in the day.

Ammerman began the meeting by saying, “Today’s date, please.”

In unison, the class responded, “Today’s date is June 4, 1993.”

“Say—spell—say June, please,” Ammerman said.

“June. Capital J, U, N, E. June.”

“All right, the days of the week.”

“Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday.”

“What are the days of the weekend, Kim?”

“Saturday and Sunday,” the student answered.

Ammerman continued in this vein for several more minutes, then changed topics. Emily, the “student of the day,” had previously written some numbers on a chart, and now the teacher wanted to know what the “pattern of the day” was.

“What’s happening in our pattern over there, Brian?”

“It’s counting by tens,” he said.

“OK, now what do we start with?”

“It starts with 450 and it goes to 530,” Brian answered.

“OK, class, ready?”

Again in unison, the class responded, “Today’s pattern is 450, 460, 470, 480, 490, 500, 510, 520, 530.”

Ammerman then had the class count by threes until they reached 30, and then she asked them to count backward by fives from 100. The students performed these and other tasks effortlessly.

The meeting was clearly something of a routine—for both teacher and students. In fact, teachers who use Saxon’s elementary program must follow a “script,” a concept many teachers might find objectionable. “Although it is not necessary to memorize the script,” states one Saxon handbook, “teachers are encouraged to follow the script and the questioning strategies as closely as possible in a way that is comfortable for the teacher.”

Yet Ammerman had nothing but praise for the Saxon program, script and all. “I wish I would have had this 29 years ago,” she told me. Her colleagues echoed her praise. “I think the program’s fantastic,” said 3rd grade teacher Susan Rice. “My students’ ‘mental math’ has grown beyond belief. There’s an amazing amount of material that they can do in their head that my 3rd graders couldn’t do before.... Very rarely does anyone get any lower than a B.” Kindergarten teacher Jean Parker told me: “It’s the first math series that I’ve used that is developmentally appropriate for kindergarten-age children. They learn so many more concepts throughout the year than in any other program I’ve taught in the last 15 years.” Principal Brad Aults said, because of the Saxon program, “the kids are developing a love affair with mathematics.”

Later that day, I visited an algebra class taught by Francis Bloom, a 22-year veteran who’s spent his entire career teaching at Tyrone Area High School. In typical Saxon fashion, Bloom spent about 15 minutes going over new material before stopping so that the class—about 15 10th and 11th graders—could begin working on problems. Bloom then circulated around the classroom as the students worked on their own or with others.

“It’s an excellent approach,” Bloom told me after the class, “especially because of the retention factor. That’s the biggest thing.” Bloom said, since the district adopted the Saxon method, the percentage of students getting a B or better has gone up. “We don’t really have to curve our students to get As, Bs, and Cs,” he said. “Maybe 10 years ago, our final exam scores might have averaged, say, 50 percent, and we had to curve them to get As, Bs, and Cs.”

As for test scores, Bloom said results on the math section of the California Achievement Test have improved by about 8 percent to 10 percent, a gain he downplayed, calling it “not very significant.”

“But you’ve got to realize the population we have here,” Nancy Smith offered. “We don’t have college professors living in this town sending their children to school here. We have factory workers. We have parents who’d rather go to the mall than stay at home and make sure their kids do their homework.”

I asked Bloom if there were any negative aspects of Saxon’s method. “I don’t have any negatives,” he said. Nancy Smith laughed and added, “You’re asking the wrong people!” Pausing, she then said: “We get criticized by people who say we’re putting out these little robots because they do all these problems every day. But if you take a close look at the nature of the problems, you can’t possibly be a robot unless you do the same thing over and over, and the kids aren’t doing the same thing over and over. Yes, they’re doing 30 problems every night, but it’s a variety of problems.”

Like other teachers I spoke with, Bloom dismissed the John Saxon/NCTM debate. “I don’t get involved in it,” he told me. “I’ve looked at the Standards, I’ve looked at where we’re headed in mathematics, I’ve looked at what we’re doing here with the Saxon program, and I don’t see a conflict at all.”

It was easy to see why the Saxon method had caught on in Tyrone, a politically conservative town with traditional public schools. In recent years, many schools—public and private—have gone back to using “old-fashioned” teaching methods. “Quietly and without fanfare,” wrote Marilee Rist in The Executive Educator last year, “school executives in geographically scattered school districts are stocking their schools’ instructional tool chests with a full panoply of teaching and learning tools—including, when appropriate, memorization, drill-and-practice, individual recitation, even choral responses.” Saxon’s popularity among some educators is no doubt part of this trend.

But even those critics willing to concede that there’s a place for drill-and-practice in math education are put off by the almost evangelical fervor of Saxon and his supporters. “There is more than one way to teach math,” Vance Mills, math and science director for the San Diego Unified School District, told USA Today. “I think Saxon says there is only one way—his way.” The district tried Saxon’s books for two years but then pulled them after test scores began to drop. “Drill-and-practice isn’t enough,” Mills says. “I think we need to have kids who are thinkers and problem solvers.”

Meanwhile, John Saxon is turning up the volume: His recent physics textbook contains a 26-page open letter to President Clinton, in which the publisher attacks the state adoption committees that have rejected his books, rails against the NCTM, and repeats his standing offer to give away $10 million worth of his textbooks “to prove that American students can score much higher.”

“I have written to you three times,” Saxon pleads in his letter, “have written your Secretary of Education three times, and have received no reply from either of you. You can’t fix it if you don’t know where it is broken. Therefore, I take the unusual step of putting this letter to you in the preface of the first printing of the teacher’s edition of my new physics book. We need to fund education adequately, but I would like to discuss some other problem areas whose solutions require only leadership from you and will cost the taxpayers little or nothing.”

Saxon is still waiting for a reply

A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 1993 edition of Teacher as Math’s Angry Man


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