Publisher Charges Ahead After Founder’s Death

By Jessica L. Sandham — February 12, 1997 3 min read
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John Saxon died six months ago, but his crackly voice still greets callers to the main switchboard at Saxon Publishers, directing callers to the appropriate extension.

The recorded message isn’t the only trace of the influence the late Mr. Saxon still has on the maverick textbook-publishing company he started 16 years ago. More than 100 employees continue to work toward his ambitious goal of “turning around” the state of American education.

The company is flourishing, said Frank Wang, who has been its president since 1994. Sales of Saxon programs have more than quadrupled in the past six years, he said, from $5.9 million in 1990 to $27.5 million in 1996.

But the company remains largely on the fringes of the textbook industry, and it faces an uphill battle in its efforts to become a major player.

Mr. Saxon, a former Air Force lieutenant colonel turned college math instructor, wrote his first textbook at his dining room table after he became frustrated with students who weren’t retaining basic math skills. That book, published in 1980, was an Algebra I text aimed at high school students that emphasized a back-to-basics approach.

In the years just before his death, Mr. Saxon became involved in a highly public war of words with the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. The group remains firmly opposed to what it sees as the “drill and kill” methods of rote memorization and lengthy problem sets that form the backbone of Saxon textbooks.

Though NCTM officials declined recently to talk specifically about Saxon Publishers or its products, a spokeswoman for the group said the teachers’ organization is not likely to change its stance against the instructional style such textbooks advocate. The NCTM has long maintained that rote drill is not an effective way to teach math for most students. The group favors approaches that will help students comprehend the rationale behind solving problems.

Building on a Legacy

In a recent interview, Mr. Wang said the Marion, Okla.-based company is building a distribution center, scheduled to open in April, to keep up with demand.

“We’re shifting from being a company that was more upstart and entrepreneurial to one that has a more corporate structure,” Mr. Wang said. “But that would have happened even if John hadn’t died.”

Mr. Wang was Mr. Saxon’s first employee in 1980. Mr. Wang was 16 then. At 32, he has risen to the company’s top job, having acquired along the way a doctorate in pure mathematics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“John Saxon was more my mentor than my boss,” said Mr. Wang. “My mission now is to build upon his legacy and further it.”

One way the company hopes to build on the framework set up by its founder is by adding a phonics-based reading program for children in grades K-2.

The Phonics Debate

Like the controversial no-frills approach to math, in which students are introduced to new concepts gradually, Saxon’s phonics program emphasizes teaching letters and sounds in small increments, with plenty of review and cumulative testing.

When the company released its phonics program last year, it was joining an already heated argument over how to teach reading.

“With math, we picked a fight,” Mr. Wang said. “With phonics, we jumped into one.”

Opponents of the phonics approach say students learn to read best by first learning to comprehend the meaning of a story and to recognize words in context. Phonics supporters insist that children read better when they are taught the basic relationship between letters, sounds, and words.

Many researchers, however, say that combining the two approaches is the most effective.

“Many people have deeply held beliefs as to how children learn to read,” said Robert Sweet, the president of the National Right to Read Foundation, a nonprofit foundation based in Plains, Va., that promotes phonics education. “Saxon came into the debate at a timely point, when the shift is going back to teaching alphabet sounds and rules.”

Aside from a physics text published in 1993, the phonics series is the first program the company has released that is not related to mathematics. Its launch signified an expansion into other educational subjects.

“We’re not always in tune with the establishment,” Mr. Wang said, in the style of his predecessor, who enjoyed bucking what he saw as an entrenched education system. “We don’t design products to sell on the market, we seek programs with proven success in the classroom.”

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