Skip to comments.The Legend of John Saxon, Math Warrior
Posted on 09/03/2012 6:21:00 PM PDT by BruceDeitrickPrice
Warning, this article contains superlatives and extreme statements. How should we teach the young? I believe everyone should be passionate about the answers. The countrys fate depends on it.
Over the years I often heard the name John Saxon but knew for sure only that his books were popular among homeschoolers. I was under the impression that he wrote his books for them. Not true. He wrote his books for every kid stuck in a classroom.
Ive just finished John Saxons Story: a genius of common sense in math education, an excellent biography by Nakonia Hayes. It is a smart, judicious book with 340 pages. It is not a potboiler, not really a page-turner. But it tells the life story of a totally remarkable man. I think its correct to say that John Saxon is the greatest American educator of the last hundred years. He is unique in our history. If you want to understand the wreck that is American public education, read this book. If you are a teacher or parent hoping to defeat the treachery in the school system, read this book.
John Saxon--almost by accident, in a second career following 27 distinguished years in the Air Force--became a millionaire as writer and publisher. His books and his methods were that good. Oh, how the Education Establishment hated him for this. If the playing field had been level, I assure you Saxon would have been a billionaire. He would be to education and publishing what Steve Jobs is to computers.
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Given the chance, most people chose Saxon materials because they worked. Fundamentally, John Saxon did what clever teachers have usually done if they are sincere about teaching a body of knowledge. Start with the simplest facts; practice; add more facts; review; etc. Make sure students experience success. We see this paradigm in every good French class, typing class, cooking school, and music school.
Evidently, the people in charge of the public schools did not want to teach much math. Reform Math (this is actually an umbrella term for a dozen separate curricula) was a flop that prevented children from learning basic arithmetic and drove millions of students away from chemistry, physics, and calculus. Reform Math was not just fuzzy and dysfunctional but racist and sexist. The premise was that girls and minorities cannot learn math. So a dumb-math must be created. The second sophistry was that all children must be subjected to dumb-math!
Saxon desperately wanted kids to learn. Think of a wise old football coach, by turns gruff, theatrical, and tenderhearted. Saxon was a fighter. He was also a shrewd theoretician. He had taken a lot of math courses, struggling with much of it. When he became a teacher, he became obsessed with finding better ways to teach math and everything else. He embraced what worked.
John Saxons Story contains hundreds of anecdotes and quotations that illuminate Saxons life. Some will bring tears to your eyes. Here is my favorite, a fan letter from a high school teacher: I think perhaps there can be no higher compliment to you than to tell you how much feeling my students have for you. After 17 years, I know it is remarkable if a student could tell me the color of his math book -- to say nothing of knowing who authored it. The Saxon students trust you and work hard and do well for themselves, for me, and for Mr. Saxon.
As child and adult, John Saxon was hyper-energetic, charming, and hard to manage. He preached that life should be an adventure. He joined the Army Air Corps in 1943, and learned to fly bombers. Before he could be sent to Europe, he was accepted into West Point, where he earned a degree in engineering in 1949. He was married and had four children. He survived four plane crashes. He was a combat pilot in the Korean War. After that, he earned a degree in aeronautical engineering so he could be a test pilot for five years. He got a Masters degree in electrical engineering at the University of Oklahoma and taught at the U.S. Air Force Academy. In 1968 he was ordered to duty as a pilot in Vietnam. Forced to retire in 1970, he hated it. He got counseling, and the idea came up that he should become a part-time algebra teacher at a junior college in Oklahoma. He was stunned that his students knew so little math. Thats where the saga really begins.
Saxon criticized the professional educators for adopting programs that were not tested or proven. He ran hundreds of attack ads in the professional journals. He challenged their books to one-on-one tests, offering to cover expenses. Saxon promised that his books will win--by an order of magnitude. There were no takers. Heres why: Reform Math is a loser, a tar pit where bad ideas go to become fossils. An up-and-coming professor admitted: The way that we typically do things in education seems almost reverse-engineered to produce the least possible learning. All my research says the same thing.
Reform Math and Whole Word (reading instruction) are nearly identical twins. Rarely discussed in the same article, both are counter-productive pedagogies that keep children from learning what is allegedly being taught. Reform Math virtually guarantees that children will not be good at math. Whole Word virtually guarantees that children will be poor readers. Think of these two as the twin helix that spirals devastatingly through all the classrooms of America. Each of these phonies is a paradigm that exposes the other. You find the worst way to teach a subject, and then promote it with the full weight of the Department of Education, the National Education Association, the National Science Foundation, and dozens of groups with fancy names, such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM).
If you told me the NCTM is a Communist front, I would think, now everything makes sense. However, if you insist that NCTM is composed of patriotic Americans, I would have to insist in return that they must live in Cloud Cuckoo Land. About math education, they are right as often as a stopped clock. John Saxon is right the rest of the time.
Please note that all the bad ideas in Reform Math are now being rebranded as Common Core Curriculum. John Saxon died in 1996. We need him more than ever.
As noted, Nakonia (Niki) Hayes is a careful and scholarly narrator. So far she has been a teacher, counselor, school principal, journalist, and now author. She understands the genius of John Saxons methods. I came away thinking that Hayes would be an excellent Secretary of Education.
Is this the same Saxon Math so many home schooler’s use but public schools said was “too expensive”. Seems there was also a Saxon Phonics that our school did buy. Or is this something different? Just curious.
If I’m not mistaken Marva Collins used Saxon in her school...
You’re correct about Saxon Math being a popular choice for homeschoolers. As to the phonics, I can’t say.
What is the difference between Saxon math and reform math? Never heard of either one.
How bout just plain ole studying hard?
Yes he had a phonics program also. The math program was very structured and repetitive-and very good for most children. It came in consumable work books and most districts didn’t want to pay every year for consumable workbooksfor each child. Also the fact that it was not created by a ‘real’ educator was a thorn in the side for approval in a union run school district.
Our school was too cheap to buy the Math but I think they did finally buy maybe one year of the Phonics the year my son was in 1st grade, he’s in 10th now. BUT he got the unlucky draw of the worst teacher we’ve ever had . . . ya know the one they keep moving from grade to grade to grade but won’t fire. It took him a year or two to recover and while he does usually make all A’s he doesn’t do the advanced classes that daughter did. Also had a less than stellar K teacher so two bad years in a row really was tough. Otherwise we have had some very good teachers, especially DD with her AP classes in high school.
Our school was too cheap, said it was too expensive. This was when kids were in elementary, now 10th grade & freshman in college. They probably are still too cheap. I’ve heard mention on various message boards with teachers asking each other IF they’ve started the Common Core, which I’m not familiar with.
I bought a recent elementary math book from a thrift store a few years ago. Talk about BS. I’ve had math past calculus and I found the book obtuse. Math is, in a sense, modular. With practical examples and a mastery of basic math including multiplication and division, a student has a solid foundation to build on. The new math fails to do that.
Studying hard is just one tool in the box. You still need effective teaching.
Thank you for sharing. I will certainly look at the method for my kids......
Saxon developed his following among homeschoolers for two reasons. First, he would sell his curriculum to homeschoolers at a time when even many Christian curriculum publishers would not. Second, the books are prodigies of sound pedagogy.
I am writing this going through the Saxon series for the third time, and I am always impressed by how clear the explanations are and how well the books reinforce previously learned material.
Saxon is hated for the same reasons phonics is hated by the education establishment. The message of Saxon to the “math educators” of simian intellect is “You have nothing to contribute. We know how to teach math effectively, and if you want to make a name for yourself as an innovator, you will need to do it in some other field. But you probably aren’t smart enough to do that.”
For the textbook publishers, the message is “There is no need for constantly changing new editions of math books. Your “innovations”, typically produced by imbecile math educators, have no point other than helping your top line revenue. They are unneeded, and you need to find a different business model - one that doesn’t involve creating revenue by pushing defective curriculum and harming children.”
Saxon was acquired by Harcourt-Achieve in a sale that was forced by the Death Tax. Most of us buy the pre-Harcourt editions used because we don’t trust Harcourt.
For homeschoolers, Art Robinson’s suggestions on how to begin Saxon are sound. Teach your child math facts through the 12s until they are absolutely automatic. Then start with Saxon 5/4 (books below 5/4 are a sop to the stupid scope and sequence of government schools). You will find that a normal child with that preparation will do most of 5/4 in his head and finish the book easily in about 8 or 9 weeks. I’ve done this three times; it works. My 9 year-old is about 30 lessons away from starting Saxon Algebra I.
If you want to understand the problem in more depth, go to YouTube and watch Math Education: An Inconvenient Truth and the two related videos (not the “responses”).
I have tutored hs students for many years and worked with adults with almost no retained math knowledge. After a while you begin to think it can’t be this bad by accident.
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Excellent summary. I once checked what I was teaching my kids out of his books versus what the State of Texas required for their math exams. He covered it all - I was stunned.
The books are astounding. Using those books is like watching the old Fox News - all of a sudden all of the garbage is out of the way, and you’re seeing the real thing.
these books are spectacular for average kids and average teachers.
Your article reminds me (in spirit at least) of the efforts of one of my personal heroes in education, John Taylor Gatto.
I have attempted to cross reference Saxon and Gatto unsuccessfully, which is surprising since their work seems to strike so many similar chords.
For those not familiar, Gatto is a champion of the “Deschooling” method of Homeschooling. Beyond breaking from traditional curricula Gatto further promotes the concept that “genius” is something that should be expected and commonplace, as opposed to the extraordinary find. (Gatto’s theory being that the thing we call genius is not rare. What is rare is its acknowledgment and nurture.)
Ping for later.
Government school has never been tested!
It is **UNKNOWN** how much knowledge is acquired in the classroom as compared to the **AFTERSCHOOLING** and **PRESCHOOLING** done by the parents IN THE HOME!
Yeah! I am shouting. We spend up to $30,000 per child per year in government schools and NO ONE knows who is doing the real teaching and where it is happening!
Definition of Afterschooling: All the hard work done by parents in the preschool and school years, the work done by child in homework, and by paid and unpaid tutors.
Personally, The only academically successful children I have met have been significantly afterschooled or homeschooled by their parents. Both sets of parents are doing the same things IN THE HOME and spending about the same amount of time doing it.
I am writing this going through the Saxon series for the third time,
Gee! I thought I was the only one who did this for **fun**!
We should form a secret club with special decoder rings. :-)
I’m not familiar with “Common Core” math since I’ve been retired for quite a while, but I don’t like the word “common”-sounds like a diminished program to me.
Saxon Algebra, Saxon Phonics....anything educational is this John Saxon. He wrote or co-wrote about 12 books.
Niki Hayes and others are now engaged in a project to keep the name and legend alive. I’ll be helping.
Her site is saxonmathwarrior.com.
They are the exact opposite of each other.
Saxon taught incrementally, with mastery.
Reform Math (12 kinds) teaches chaotically, with no mastery.
Thank you. Seems every few years they have to change from whole language to this or that and won’t stick with anything that actually works. Saxon would be definite improvement over all the failures of the last 30-40 years in education. Start small and get the groundwork in their little heads and then there is nothing stopping them . . . except a little thing called teacher UNIONS.
Thanks for this excellent commentary.
Here’s something else that occurred to me while reading the biography. Each of the dozen Reform Math books (e.g. Everyday Math) has 10-20 authors. So that’s about 200 professors with their snouts in the trough. That buys a lot of compliance, and a lot of disdain for Saxon, even though he’s the one doing a good job.
Gatto and Saxon may be a tough fit. Saxon was a basic, basics, basics guy— with love and cleverness but plenty of sweat.
Gatto is very popular with Education Revolution, where people celebrate ALTERNATIVE ED, any sort of school that lets kids loose. (It’s all a little too hippie for me.) Maybe good for highly motivated kids.
But don’t most kids want structure? Don’t they want to see their own progress? Saxon caters to these desires.