Math the Saxon Way Is Catching On

By David J. Hoff — May 01, 2002 8 min read
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Holding a script in his hand, Eric Klebow tells his 2nd graders what they’ll be learning in their math lesson.

“Today, you will learn to tell time to the minute,” the teacher at Magnolia Elementary School here explains to his class. “My clock shows one minute past 10 or 10-0-1,” he adds, pointing to the face of a clock hanging from the blackboard.

After he encourages the youngsters to repeat what he just said, he asks, “Are you ready to go on?” And then he does, first reading the script that tells him to add one minute and then asking students to read it for him. The exercise continues—adding minute by minute—until the clock reads 10:15.

Mr. Klebow and other teachers throughout California and the nation are increasingly reading from such scripts. And Saxon Publishers, the company that produces the materials used in K-5 classrooms across this district 10 miles east of Los Angeles’ city border, has seen a dramatic rise in market share over the past decade. Saxon’s success comes as schools attempting to hone students’ ability to acquire the fundamental skills of mathematics, such as adding one to every number on the clock.

“In every lesson, we teach a bite-sized concept,” said Frank Wang, the chairman of the privately held Oklahoma-based company. “After we teach this new concept, we’ll review what they’ve already learned” in previous lessons.

‘Mechanical Processes’

Teachers and administrators here in the 12,000-student Azusa district say they like the Saxon approach because it ensures that students master the basics and prepares them for the state’s testing program. They note that Azusa’s scores on the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition—the basis of California’s accountability system—have risen every year since 1999, when the district adopted the Saxon curriculum for its K-5 classes.

Yet critics of the approach contend that students only get a superficial understanding of mathematics from Saxon. The students learn how to perform mathematical operations, the detractors say, but not how to apply them in real-life situations.

“Their idea is that repeatedly mastering tiny steps leads to the mastery of skills,” said Bill Jacobs, a professor of mathematics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a critic of Saxon and other skills-based approaches to teaching math. “The problem is, you never operate with ideas,” he said. “You just operate with skills.”

Even those who reviewed Saxon materials two years ago for the California state board of education found them lacking.

“This series seems less interested in the logical reasoning and the ideas underlying a concept or a procedure than in the mechanical processes which would lead to an effective means of coaxing a correct answer out of the problem,” two reviewers wrote.

For example, the report added, Saxon’s scripts tell students that division is the opposite of multiplication.

“This is mathematically correct,” the report said, “but do [students] have any intuitive grasp of the significance of division?”

The California school board added Saxon to the approved-textbook list anyway, after local school administrators offered testimonials based on their experience using the company’s products. Districts had previously been allowed to purchase Saxon books because the state board had granted provisional approval in 1999.

But Mr. Jacobs, who followed the textbook adoptions closely, said the company benefited as well from endorsements from influential mathematicians who believe early math education should emphasize basic skills and procedures.

Maverick to Mainstream

Critics have been complaining about Saxon’s focus on basic skills at Saxon products since the company published its first textbook in 1980. John H. Saxon Jr., a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel and the company’s founder, wrote the book at his dining room table with Mr. Wang, then a teenager.

The first book was an introductory algebra text filled with problems for students to practice over and over again—similar to the lesson that Mr. Klebow offered his 2nd graders on telling time.

In the company’s early years, Mr. Saxon waged a verbal war with textbook publishers and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, saying the two forces produced classroom materials that eschewed addition, subtraction, and long division.

Mr. Saxon’s work eventually found buyers in school districts. By the time he died in 1996, the company’s annual sales had grown to $27 million, up from $6 million six years earlier. (“Publisher Charges Ahead After Founder’s Death,” Feb. 12, 1997.)

Now, the company’s annual sales are “approaching $100 million,” and it employs 250 people, Mr. Wang said. “We’re the smallest of the big boys” in math- textbook publishing, he said.

The company is owned by Mr. Saxon’s children, and has its headquarters in Norman, Okla., the late publisher’s hometown. The company also publishes phonics reading materials and a physics textbook, although its core business is still mathematics.

Saxon Publishers’ growth has continued since 1996. In a survey of 3,000 teachers conducted in 2000, an independent research firm found that Saxon claims about 11 percent of the K-4 market, fourth on the list behind products of such major publishers as Pearson PLC, Harcourt General Inc., and Houghton Mifflin Co.

In the upper grades, though, the market penetration is much smaller, the survey found. The study estimates that 8 percent of classrooms in grades 5-8 and 3 percent of high school classes use Saxon.

In a similar survey in 1993, Saxon “didn’t even register,” said Iris R. Weiss, the president of Horizon Research Inc., a Chapel Hill, N.C., company that conducted the study under a National Science Foundation grant.

“It fits in with the way teachers are preparing their students for standardized tests,” Ms. Weiss said.

Saxon’s products established themselves at the same time that several new curricula underwritten by the NSF entered the market. Saxon is used in more classrooms, the survey found, than the combined total of the two most popular products subsidized by the NSF: Everyday Math published by McGraw-Hill and a variety of curriculum materials published by Dale Seymour Publications, a division of Pearson.

Back to Basics

One factor in Saxon’s recent success was that the California state board—despite the critical report from its reviewers— included Saxon products on the state’s list of adopted textbooks. That means districts can buy the curriculum materials with state money.

In 1999, shortly after the state put Saxon on its provisional list, the Azusa Unified School District bought Saxon products for its 12 elementary schools. Teachers like Saxon, according to district officials, because it gives them a series of lesson plans that are ready for use and comprehensive.

The lessons challenge students to do several types of tasks—count money, tell time, and add 10 to numbers—while also introducing new skills, educators here say.

“It’s not just teaching a concept, leaving it behind, and moving to another,” said Rita A. Ruminski, the principal of Alice Ellington Elementary School, a series of small buildings that covers a small campus in this largely Hispanic city. “You’re continually bringing a concept up and practicing it,” she said.

Many teachers do not follow the scripts as closely as Mr. Klebow does, but they all rely on a variety of Saxon materials—posters, worksheets, weekly quizzes—as they prepare for their lessons.

“If you just follow the script, it can get confusing,” said Marcella Ramos, who teaches a mixed class of 4th and 5th graders at Magnolia Elementary School. “You have to plan ahead and know how to connect it to their lives.”

But scripts are especially helpful for new teachers and substitutes, others say.

“One of the benefits of scripting,” said Sharron Lindsay, the director of student achievement for elementary schools for the district, “is that a new teacher can walk right in and follow the script.”

Those ingredients have delivered results, Azusa officials say. In 1999, about 30 percent of students in each of the 2nd through 5th grades scored above the 50th percentile on the Stanford-9. Three years later, more than half the students in each grade surpassed that mark.

By comparison, the district’s language arts scores also improved, but not as dramatically. At none of the elementary grade levels did more than half the class score above the 50th percentile in language arts. Azusa uses Harcourt language arts texts.

In the Baldwin Park Unified School District, another small district on the eastern edge of Los Angeles, the experience with Saxon has been the same, according to Lynne B. Kennedy, the director of student achievement for the 17,000-student district.

“Students are performing at much higher levels,” Ms. Kennedy said, “and they’re much more interested in mathematics.” And teachers are happier, she said, now that Saxon provides a precise amount of content to cover.

Lasting Impact?

While many educators attribute the success of their math students to Saxon, critics say that the publisher’s emphasis on skills imparts only a shallow grasp of mathematics.

The questions on the Stanford-9 tend to be simple procedures that Saxon prompts students to do over and over again.

“If kids practice exact tasks that are on the test,” said Mr. Jacobs, the mathematics professor, “they will do better.”

Such practice, Mr. Wang counters, will help students prepare for any kind of math test, regardless of its content or format.

“On any measure, if you take the Saxon approach, the students will do better,” he said. “Students who have a solid foundation are simply going to do better.”

But Mr. Jacobs contends that students who have been drilled in Saxon’s procedural methods in the early grades may not do well when they get to middle school. By then, they will be forced to apply mathematical concepts in algebra. After years of adding numbers together to create a sum, he says, they might not understand that they can change an equation by subtracting the same number from each side of the equal sign. Such a concept is integral to succeeding in algebra, he points out.

“It’s clear students can do well on tests,” Mr. Jacobs said, “without developing the conceptual understanding they need to succeed in later courses.”

The teachers and administrators in Azusa, however, are happy with Saxon and plan to keep using it. Their students, they say, have a much better understanding of math and are able to perform its basic functions better than when they learned under a different curriculum.

“They have a deeper understanding because they are continually being exposed to the concepts,” said Ms. Ruminski, the principal of Ellington Elementary. “When a concept clicks, they get it.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 2002 edition of Education Week as Math the Saxon Way Is Catching On


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