**Chapter 15: nice words, plus a parent revolt**

*“It’s a joyful, joyous experience, this one-sided battle.”*

*“There am I on one side and aligned with me are all the mommas and daddies and employers. On the other are the major book companies and their committees of experts. My side has to win.”*

*John, 1982*

A Chicago mathematics teacher, Lawrence E. Freeman, wrote in December 1982 that no one should be surprised that math professionals would react more defensively than rationally when the first word of a new algebra textbook arrives by way of the national media, including a ringing endorsement by William F. Buckley, Jr..**1** Worse, he said, was John Saxon’s unwillingness to send out free samples of his texts and “insists on charging $12.80 for review copies.” Mr. Freeman thus concluded it was understandable that some academics would howl in protest.

The teacher said he bought his copy and didn’t find it sufficiently “odd” to justify its negative reception. He did admit that “watering down” of content, which was possible with chapter-style books, could not be done with Saxon. He criticized it as having too few word problems that “develop or challenge the deeper aspects of mathematical ability.” Yet, he said, “The text is the text is the text and its content is tried-and-true algebra.”

Mr. Freeman said the book alone would have had definite appeal “to at least a portion of the market” but that John had gone a step farther: He had given out details of his field test that produced outstanding results. This, he said, caught the eyes, voices, and typewriters of the national media “and the critics have closed in!”

Still, the teacher offered the view that, at the time, “Perhaps we should rejoice that there has never been a wider choice of philosophies expressed in mathematics textbooks for high schools.”

Another teacher offered a similar perspective in his closing statement of a letter to the *Mathematics Teacher* magazine’s August/September 1982 issue: “We may not choose to jump into the vortex of this crusade, but if John Saxon’s barbs provoke us only to some serious introspection about algebraic content and method, they will have rendered a useful service.”**2**

here would be no acceptance of a “wider choice of philosophies,” however, with the growing warfare between NCTM and its supporters and John and his people. There were those who grabbed hold of his books and hung on to them in spite of warnings from NCTM-affiliated supervisors and colleagues. With the constant testing that John would do in schools to gather data about his program and the sincere belief in his product, John would receive adulation from both teachers and students after using his books. His company’s large scrapbooks, filled with 1,945 articles from 1981 to 2004, were loaded with copies of both flattering and critical news stories that reflected attitudes and comments from administrators, teachers, parents and students. Occasionally, there was a copy of handwritten notes on stationery or on news clippings themselves about one of “his” kids who had succeeded.

Such a case involved an African American student in Macon, Georgia, in 1991.**3** The sender’s note said, “Angel is a calculus student; she had the highest Northeast score on the SAT and has been interviewed on national television and *Jet* and *People *magazines.” John did remember giving books to her high school when Angel was in the eighth grade. She had used his series of books through calculus.

One special early proponent of Saxon’s algebra book was Mrs. Kathy Warwick, an eighth grade teacher in Boylston, Massachusetts.**4** She didn’t feel good about the book in the beginning, she said. ““For the first three or four months, I was ready to put the books on the shelf and take out the old ones. You just didn’t know what direction you were heading.” But by December 1982 she began feeling more comfortable with the new book and, by midterm exams in January, she was convinced that the Saxon method might be more effective than the traditional algebra program. This awakening became a reality when the math teachers, who normally had to set aside up to two weeks to review for a midterm or final exam, were able to cut the review time to about two days.

To critics who had said the constant repetition might bore top students silly, the math teachers at Tahanto High School in Boylston disagreed. “Boring is a word we hear a lot,” Mrs. Warwick said. “I have never heard a kid say ‘bored’ since we’ve been doing this.”

Because of John’s trip to Boylston in 1983, students had a special fondness for the Saxon books, according to the teachers. “They talk about John Saxon like they know him.”

Thus the parade of proponents became evident in the unexpected voices of students themselves. A most unusual circumstance took place on the Navajo reservation in Fort Defiance, Arizona.**5** Seniors at Window Rock High School were asked whom they wanted for their graduation speaker in 1990. “Those of us who were looking for someone we admired wanted him because he has done so much for us,” said Arnell Yazzie, president of the senior class. He and others taking calculus had lobbied for John’s selection. “Our sponsor suggested the governor of Arizona, but we wanted John Saxon.”

Alice Jasmer, who had taught for 15 years mostly in the Window Rock school system, said the Saxon approach had taken the average math ability of their students from a place in 1985 where it was substantially below the national average to “now where it is above the national average.” That year, for the first time, 13 high school students took the Advanced Placement exam for calculus. The news story covering this situation quoted students about their love for *Saxon Math*.

Three days later, a follow up story was printed in *The Arizona Republic*.**6** With a typical play on words found in many newspapers regarding mathematics’ issues, the newspaper’s headline said “Sum of math teachings equals pop figure.” The reporter wrote, “Saxon is hardly a likely teenage hero, especially when Saxon’s claim to fame is as the author of textbooks for junior high and high school mathematics. At this high school, as at thousands of other schools around the country, Saxon’s name is spoken with reverence by pupils who credit him with changing completely their views about math.”

To show their affection, the students gave John a Navajo rug woven with **Saxon** in bold black letters in the center of the rug. It now hangs on the wall in his son Johnny’s home in Muskogee, Oklahoma.

The news story said that in 1984, prior to the Saxon program, students answered 11 of 36 math questions on the ACT, compared to the national average of 17. “This year [1990], the Window Rock average was 20, compared to the national 19.” Saxon said, “They [the NCTMers] won’t concede the possibility that higher test scores could indicate that the students have a better understanding of math concepts and that the program works.”

In 1991, *USA Today* reported that 60 percent of the 1990 Window Rock seniors were finishing their freshman year in college.**7** “Just four years ago, only 37 percent of the graduating class in this Navajo community in Fort Defiance went to college and many dropped out after one semester.” The difference, said math teacher Alice Jasmer, is “John Saxon.” Since the school began using his books six years ago, the school’s ACT scores in math jumped 89 percent—to an average 19.8 in 1990 from 10.5 in 1985. While she would never say the books do it alone, Ms. Jasmer said the fact that last year’s graduating class wanted him as their guest speaker said a lot about Saxon’s influence on the students.

Other nearby students staged a welcoming event for John when he visited Provo High School in Utah.**8** He was stunned by his reception from the students whose teachers said, “They feel like they know him after using his books.” In 1990, when word spread through the high school that the school might not used the *Saxon Advanced Math* textbook the following year, the students organized a petition drive demanding the book be retained.**9** They succeeded with not only retaining the book but they added the *Saxon Calculus* book to the series.

A reporter in Anchorage, Alaska, reflected on her trepidation about visiting an Algebra 1 class in 1984.**10** “Algebra and I have never gotten along well,” she wrote, and then she changed her opening to say, “Okay, I’ve never gotten along very well with any kind of math.” She talked about how her eyes began to glaze over when the teacher started talking about fractions. “I heard her say, ‘You’ve had this before.’ I realized she was right. I had had it before. Confidence was half the battle and if I’d succeeded before, why shouldn’t I be able to do it again?” Later, when talking with the teacher, Nan Peters, she was told by Ms. Peters, who was piloting the Saxon book, that confidence was indeed half the battle with math students. The reporter talked with students and got positive testimonials about the program. Sandra Schoff, head of the math department, said, “A lot of kids in high school don’t even have good basic arithmetic skills. We’re trying to teach algebra skills to kids who are not equipped to learn them.”

Upon suggesting the use of Saxon, she said the main comment from teachers was that it didn’t look very interesting. She said she answered, though not in so many words, “That’s not the point.”

John’s penchant for succinct and pointed retorts was evidenced at the end of another story that began by explaining the success of his program in Mount Tahoma, Washington.**11** The school was in the middle of a three-year trial of the Saxon series in 1990. The principal reported the ninth graders had improved by six to eight percentage points on the district’s standardized test.

As usual, the news reporter quoted those who disagreed with John’s work.

Elizabeth Stage, past president of the California Mathematics Council, said his work didn’t look forward enough in the age of computers. “Learning to reason is more important than perfecting arithmetic skills,” she said. Then Eldon Egbers, the Montana state math supervisor, added there is “more to life than standardized tests” on which Saxon students do well. “What we would like youngsters to do is become experts in problem solving.”

John’s “vehement” response, according the reporter, was to deny that his program ignores reasoning ability. “Can you believe people say a student who scores 20 percent lower than another student on a standardized test somehow knows more math? It’s insulting.”

Joining in the surprise about a mathematics book that could be user-friendly, a reporter for an Albuquerque newspaper wrote in 1984 about John’s Algebra 1 being a “fun” book.**12** She had seen his book at a local book store. She said she took a moment to glance through the book and “about doubled over laughing.” She quickly clarified that the books are serious. “It’s just that Saxon presents some of his algebra problems in a marvelously humorous and clever manner.” She quoted some sample questions: “Seven-eighths of the workers in London’s fish market used scurrilous language. If 400 did not use scurrilous language, how many worked in the fish market?” Another one: “When the Huns debouched from the Alpine passes, Atilla found that 18 percent of the spear points were dull. If 720 spear points were dull, how any spears did the Huns bring with them?”

Other problems, she said, dealt with the ratio of gaudy scarves to tawdry scarves, and the defense budget’s allocation for halberds. “There are questions about Richard the Lion Hearted counting his troops; mismatched socks at a sock hop; crones and curmudgeons; and the ratio of poltergeists to barghests, chimeras to gargoyles or brigands to highway robbers.”

But humor was not the most important thing about the books, according to this reporter. “The main thing is that students who have studied algebra with this system have outstripped all others.” From there she recounted some of the success stories described in the news media around the country.

A January 1986 headline stating “Six from Los Banos Junior High are among tops in national test” opened a story about their California community’s winning eighth grade students. The National Mathematics League contest was a series of tests beginning in December and the students placed first overall, tying with six other states.**13** George Steen, math instructor, said, “The success is partially because of Saxon’s *Algebra ½* book which constantly reinforces each different lesson.” He said that each lesson was a review covering five or more word problems, fractions, decimals, percentages, equations, geometry, metrics and other types of math. “The students are used to doing a variety of problems and we spent approximately six days covering the old tests and test questions such as base values, setting up equations and trick problems,” said Mr. Steen.

Showing that Saxon could be used in less traditional-type classroom settings, a 1991 story told about three classrooms in Forest City, Iowa, that were put into one room under the title CAPE Mathematical (cooperation, attention, participating, and energy).**14** The students moved as fast as possible or took as long as necessary to complete a course.

Advanced students helped others and there could be anywhere from 25 to 85 students at one time in the room. Reportedly, teachers were still in charge of the basic classes and students, who used *Saxon Math*, were graded on a revised scale that didn’t allow failure. Students couldn’t move to a higher level until they had achieved a score of at least 70 percent. A teacher said, “We don’t cater to the middle anymore.” She said that tests had to be ready for all levels since students took them when they were ready and not just when the teachers were ready. “We’re on the floor six periods a day. In effect, we lose our preparation period.” She said teachers planned to use both tests and comments from students to measure the success of the new program.

Another story reflected one of John’s main contentions that the smaller schools would be the first to use his books because of the larger districts’ bureaucracy that impedes decision-making at local campuses.**15** In Liberty, Washington, just outside of Spokane, high math test scores for their eleventh grade and eighth grade students made the news. “Because of the district’s size with 627 students, it can make changes more rapidly than larger districts and those changes can make a quicker impact upon kids,” said a district spokesperson. “And with only one high school math teacher, bringing in Saxon was easy.” It also turned out this one math teacher coached football, baseball, and girls’ basketball.

In 1992, an Atlanta, Georgia, newspaper referred to a story in the *Executive Editor* magazine that suggested “a heretical yearning for ‘learning by heart’ was creeping across the land…relying on old-fashioned memorization and repetition. These efforts are initiated by teachers and meant to help students apply their learning of the real world. Proponents don’t see this as a retreat into the past, but a post-modern appropriating of traditions for their effectiveness in the present.”**16**

To explain this growing sentiment, Principal Rodolfo Bernardo of the Allen Classical/Traditional Academy, a public magnet school in Dayton, Ohio, and considered a showcase for the back-to-the-future trend said that knowing things by heart gives children a sense of accomplishment and stimulates them for higher thinking, “in contrast with trying to improve self-esteem with hollow praise.” Some successful programs cited in the article included *Saxon Math, Kumon Math, DISTAR* (Direct Instructional Systems for Teaching and Remediating) and *Core Knowledge* by E.D. Hirsch.

An official with the Oklahoma City school district said, “I think that educational problems aren’t caused so much because of television, breakdown of the family unit, or video games. I think bad textbook buying habits may also be the cause of bad scores.”**17** He continued, “Saxon’s books are one part of the answer to our problem. American textbooks of the 80’s are kind of like cars of the 70’s. They’re flashy and they entertain.” He said, “I’ve thrown away texts designed for use by specific grades [now that he can use Saxon by levels].”

Jim Coltharp, the mathematics department chairman at Cheyenne Mountain High School in Colorado Springs, Colorado, expressed a central belief about Saxon materials when he said, “The man has a God-given gift for understanding how students learn math.”**18** While the reporter noted the students from that school normally exceeded the national average by 100 points on the SAT and that 90 percent of the students go on to college, it had never been standard for more than half of the seniors to take a mathematics class—“until Saxon.”

The school’s math department had been testing John’s books for four years. Mr. Coltharp and his colleagues had watched enrollment in math classes expand “almost miraculously.” At that moment in March of 1990, 173 of the following year’s 195 seniors had enrolled in mathematics. Seven years ago, that number was 65.

He said Saxon’s whole philosophy shows that learning basics first must be done “and then you can get cute later.” In the standard books, “You’re doing the same thing 20 times. That’s not learning. That’s training the dog.” He added, “I can’t figure out for the life of me why there is so much resistance to his textbooks. What are educators afraid of? It seems like if there’s anything we can do to improve math education, we should do it. We aren’t talking about evolution versus creation in math, for God’s sake.”**19**

As usual, the reporters are to seek an opposing view to “balance” their story, so this one had contacted San Diego, California, school officials about why they had dropped *Saxon Math* after using it for two years. Program Manager Vance Mills said their test scores had dropped and, “Kids need to be able to really learn how to think and one of the best places to do that is in math. They need to build and develop their own rationale for trying to solve problems rather than just following a set of rules in a book”**20**

When asked to respond to that criticism, John countered, “Educators cannot teach students to reason; they can hope only to provide students with the skills to reason. Prevailing math teaching methods fail to do that.”

When the Colorado Springs students were interviewed, several agreed that Saxon materials had helped them improve their SAT scores. They were also more interested in taking more math courses. Senior Mary DuBois said she was ready to take college courses and Diana Freeman was pleased that with the Saxon books. “You never have to study for tests because of its constant review.” Another senior, Dan Oliviera said, “You can’t argue with results.”

Three years later, a follow up story said that 90 percent of the seniors were enrolled in a mathematics class and 50 percent of those were in calculus, with 25 percent of that group in Advanced Placement Calculus.**21** Mr. Coltharp, still the math department chairman, said two factors were responsible for this unusual event. One was the school recognized that dropping math in high school is “tantamount to a career decision because it will pretty much exclude them from taking any course in college that involved numbers.” The other was their adoption of the *Saxon Math* series that began in 1987. He showed the number of students scoring 600 or better on the SAT math section had risen from 39 in 1987 to a jump of 62 in 1991, or four years after adopting Saxon. Now, in 1993, a quarter of the seniors hit the 600 mark and there are four national merit finalists. One of those finalists said, “Anyone can memorize and get results. It’s the love of learning that counts.” As far as Mr. Coltharp is concerned, that was the gift that John Saxon had given the students.

To prove that his books worked not only with more affluent students as those at Cheyenne Mountain but with inner city minority kids, John told the story of a black woman he had taken with him to the Tennessee textbook adoption committee hearing in 1987.**22** His books had been given a horrible rating, he said, because they were judged against the 1976 National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics (NCSM) guidelines. He was given 10 minutes to refute the rating. He wondered, “How are you gonna’ to do that in 10 minutes for five books?” So, he said he showed up “with this lovely black woman, an educator, named Marita Harris.” John recalled how she stood up in front of five white people and told how her school had used Saxon and that it had worked “wonderfully well.” She pleaded, “Please put these on the state adoption list so Memphis city schools can use them.” He said they were turned down.

“It’s easier not to insult the white people. The white teachers won’t use the books because they’re used in the black schools. They think the white kids are so good, you see, they don’t need those kinds of books.” John told how he had individuals like “Marva Collins,” a Chicago educator reknowned for her work with disadvantaged students, all over the country but they weren’t being heard. Mary Lester in Dallas, for one, was doing wonderful things, he said.

In 1996, a reporter began her story by asking, “Why would a group of administrators from the St. Joseph’s Indian School in South Dakota brave a blizzard and 30-below-zero temperatures to travel to Belleville?”**23** They had come to learn about a successful math program at a small private school called Governor French Academy, she said. “It’s truly individualized. Kids are placed at their proper education level and go at their own speed to a level as high as they’re capable of doing.” Having used Saxon books since the school opened in 1983, the academy’s leaders said students in four grade levels the previous year had averaged scores in the 99th percentile on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS).

Another convert from the private school sector who gave frequent testimonials for John’s work was Charles McNeill of St. John Vianney Catholic School in Spokane, Washington. His were some of the more eloquent words: “I believe that Mr. Saxon has made a discovery of the first rank. A first rank discovery always seems to have two elements. One, its founder is a gifted amateur like an Edison—and second—the discovery itself is so simple a concept that its importance is not readily understood at first.”**24**

He said they had started using Saxon’s Algebra 1 in the middle school in 1983. Because of that, he said nearly all of the ninth graders had been able to skip the regular coursework at Gonzaga Preparatory School and public high schools, and go directly into tenth grade geometry. At the time, however, he expressed a special concern. “This is a lucrative market and every few years textbooks promise new approaches to replace ones that don’t seem to be doing the job. A good incremental book would cut into the profits because it wouldn’t be discarded.” Thus, Saxon’s opponents would fight him over their profit issues.”

By1990, Mr. McNeill was saying that he believed “John’s books are a grave threat to the education system and that is why so many are against him. The school custodian could teach math with this system. The kids could teach themselves. That’s frightening and educators hate it.”**25**

“Speaking like a revolutionary,” wrote the reporter, Mr. McNeil said, “I have been at the top of the mountain and seen the other side and I know it can be done, but it won’t be until there is a complete failure of the old system.” At age 55, he said he’s ready to “kick over a few sacred idols before I run out of steam.”

Mr. McNeil was even working on incremental approaches to social studies, science, and geography. “Daily quizzes on scientific terms help students learn and remember the vocabulary they need to succeed in science.” His students had already memorized 300 locations in geography because, “It creates a mental map of the world that stimulates an interest in history and world affairs.”

An equally eloquent commentary about John’s work came from Greg True, an Indiana algebra teacher with a master’s degree in American history.**26** He wrote a guest commentary for the *South Bend* *Tribune* in 1983 and told how he finally became curious enough to write for a copy of the text. He had to pay for it because John did not give away free samples in the early years of his business. As John had explained to him during a telephone conversation, “I have to get back my house that I mortgaged to start the business.”

Mr. True said, “The book, along with the documentation of the study conducted in Oklahoma, is elegant in it simplicity. It is designed to teach algebra, nothing else. The book covers 126 topics, one lesson at a time—no chapters, no supplementary materials. Each topic is followed by 30 problems; all but five refer to previous topics.

“The Saxon book reminds me that the essence of math is logic and simplicity. Mr. Saxon’s book can be read, understood and even enjoyed by any student with adequate arithmetic skills. The book will work because it makes things simple, which does not mean easy. The nature of each lesson and its set of problems force the student to learn. He works because he knows that he will eventually understand and appreciate what he is doing.

“I was so interested in Saxon’s book that I wrote him a letter to ask if he was going to publish books for younger students (he is). I did not expect him to call me in person a couple of days later.”

He said John told him, “I am going to make the name Saxon stand for quality just like the *McGuffey* reader…All this money I am making is just ‘funny money.’ It is all going back into the production of new books for younger students. Real money is what I use to buy food.” Because the New York publishers had turned him down and he now owned his company, he was earning $7.00 per book rather than the normal $2.00 he would have received from the those publishers.

Mr. True continued, “Saxon’s maxims have something to say to all teachers—not just math teachers. ‘Every test is a final exam. Every skill is learned and maintained through practice. Repetition is necessary.” He quoted John’s frequent reference to Van Cliburn’s practicing the piano scales every day. John told him he was happy to have found a “pedagogical clone” in California, Stephen Hake, with whom he was working on texts for fifth, sixth, and seventh grade textbooks.

“I look forward to working with his books,” said Mr. Truee, “but cannot help feeling cynical about the educational establishment. I learned more about math education in 20 minutes on the phone with John Saxon that I have learned in all the problem-solving workshops I have attended and math journals I have read. No secret exists. Students do not detest work; they detest effort without purpose. How can a 14-year-old follow a text which on three consecutive pages has a set of factoring problems, a lesson on computer programming, a picture and short biography of a mathematician, and some review problems on the previous three sections? Saxon justifiably calls this kind of presentation ‘spastic.’

“Soon John Saxon will become a celebrity and people will then try to make him more than he is, just as the media and public over-reacted to the impressive work done by Marva Collins in the inner-city of Chicago. I hope he can retain his eccentric personality and finish his new books before he drowns in all the money and attention he will be getting. He has no secretary and he works at his kitchen table. With luck, the same will be true next year. Regardless, he is an impressive story of one man against the system….A man who reminds all teachers that it is our job to set standards, present material that has meaning and see that the work (all of it) gets done.”

As with so many of those early champions, Mr. True became a sales representative for Saxon Publishers and ended up being vice-president of marketing for the company.

As the guest speaker at the Metropolitan Mathematics Club of Chicago in 1983, John was written up in the minutes as “being extremely interesting and entertaining.”**27** The members were pleased that he remained “until well past midnight to talk with those who stayed after the formal meeting.” They wrote, “In person, he says many things which are not in the advertisements in magazines. It is now much clearer what he is trying to say to us.”

With regard to addressing potentially resistant audiences because of his reputation, John remembered trying to sell his program to Muskogee, Oklahoma, math educators in 1987 after selling it to school officials.**28** He had all the math teachers together in the room—all 17 of them. He said he began with something that should have evoked a smile, but didn’t. “If looks would kill, I’d be dead. They sat there and gave me steely-eyed stares.” John said he talked for two and one half hours before lunch break. “Somewhere along the way they decided I wasn’t conning; we were on the same side.”

Teachers often will not join in any revolt or protest unless it is union-organized and has to do with their salaries. For those who support Saxon’s books, however, there was no problem with stepping forward and expressing that support. In August 1988, about 40 teachers from 32 states showed up in New York City to protest in front of the Time-Life Building.**29** They said *Time Magazine* had published a story that unjustly blamed them for the math crisis in the U.S. Reporting a recent national study, the story called U.S. math performance “dismal” and referred to “teacher deficiencies.” The teachers said student performance could change dramatically with Saxon’s textbooks and teaching methods.

Even teachers and parents from overseas wrote letters to the editor of a national magazine saying that John’s books relieved suffering of their students in math classes and used what teachers have known for years—that practice works.**30** A teacher in The American School in Warsaw, Poland, stated that they would be buying Saxon books. Parents in Schnnen, Netherlands, praised Saxon for helping their daughter escape the failures she had felt in sixth grade math.

One of the most supportive articles written on John’s behalf was in *Human Events*, a weekly periodical, in 1988. J’aime Adams, who taught in a private school and headed her own tutoring business, went after those opposing his program with a five-page spread called, “How the Ol’ Boy Network Hurts Our Children—Why do bureaucrats denounce John Saxon for getting the results we all want?”**31**

First, she hammered home the myth that scientists and mathematicians, unlike the plodding masses, are interested only in truth. “Pride, greed, cowardice—and politics—never touch this exalted intellectual community which views the evidence dispassionately and comes down on the side of angels,” according to that myth. Then she pointed out how untrue this is: “The whole history of science, math and medicine is a continuing parade of brave, dogged individuals who were willing to be battered and bloodied for going against accepted theories and practices of authorities comfortably ensconced in government, church, and the chairs of academia.”

All of this made her wonder why the mathematics educator elites so despised John Saxon. She decided to interview over 40 teachers from both affluent and poor schools, public and private, around the country “who display an infectious enthusiasm for the Saxon series.” She said the teachers with whom she spoke listed the following benefits: enormous improvement in attitude and self-esteem in minority schools, which led to an explosion of enrollment in higher math classes; a change in student work habits; a high quality of textbooks, unlike many of standard books that are poorly proofed and filled with errors.

Many of those teachers worked with disadvantaged children due to economics or by speaking English as a second language. Ms. Adams reported that as a result of Saxon books’ great effectiveness in schools with a large number of so-called “disadvantaged students,” a canard is heard occasionally from Saxon opponents which, “stripped of its pretty euphemisms and put crudely, is that Saxon is good for poor, dumb kids who need a lot of repetition, but not for smart, rich kids who don’t need to practice.” She then said the fact is that there is a great deal of data showing that “smart, rich kids are running away from math and scientific careers right along with the poor.”

She interviewed Diana Stolfus, the 1986 “Teacher of the Year” in Colorado. Ms. Stolfus and her colleagues had even been attacked by members of another area high school which did not use Saxon. The opposing school circulated a letter saying no math teacher from Ms. Stolfus’ high school should ever be allowed to serve on district textbook committees because they had “sold out to Saxon.”

Ms. Adams said that many teachers who were interviewed felt the NCTM worked behind the scenes in subtle ways to discredit the Saxon series. When NCTM offices were called for an interview they would say they “offered no position” about special textbooks but referred *Human Events* to back issues of *Mathematics Teacher*, which would give an idea of their Saxon coverage.

“That coverage,” she said, “turned out to be an unfavorable review by Zalman Usiskin of the University of Chicago Mathematics Education Department, which was at that time negotiating for and subsequently received a multi-million dollar grant from the Amoco Corporation to produce its own series, and a near-hysterical page-long letter from Madolyn Reed, then director of math for the Houston public schools.” She accused Saxon of trying to do a “snow job on gullible minorities” while trying to “line his pockets with good old American capital.”

The favorable commentaries were full-page ads *which Saxon had paid for himself*, said Ms. Adams.

When asked about the high scores Saxon students apparently earned, a Tennessee Department of Education spokesman told Ms. Adams that high test scores did not mean that a student understood what he was doing. “He may just be skillful at manipulating numbers!”

Her retort was that high scores are necessary to get a National Merit Scholarship; high scores are necessary to get into the “best” schools; high scores determine whether a child is placed in the slow track or the “talented and gifted” track of his school. She said she presumed the Japanese kids were better math students than American kids “because they got high scores in competitions with us.” The only high scores that don’t count with the establishment are the high scores of Saxon students, Ms. Adams concluded.

In bringing her article to a close, she said the Catch-22 situation was summarized by a source at the U.S. Department of Education who said, “The general feeling among math educators who don’t like Saxon is that his books give only short retention gains in test taking ability, but that he doesn’t give the students any overall understanding of broad concepts.” She challenged that “feeling” of the spokesperson by saying, “There is no way to determine a student’s understanding of concepts without tests, and the simpler souls amongst us might be tempted to think that the student who makes a high score on his calculus exam just possibly may be further along the road of conceptual understanding than the kid who flunked.”

Jay Mathews, education columnist for *The Washington Post* newspaper, had followed John’s career from the early years. At one point, he thought he would write a book about John since he had written about Jaime Escalante and his remarkable achievements with barrio students in Los Angeles. That book was the basis for the highly-praised movie, *Stand and Deliver*, which chronicled Mr. Escalante’s work. Mr. Mathews’ interest was peaked when he learned that teachers were using John’s books in the “education underground.”**32 **That is, even though teachers were told to use reform materials, they were surreptitiously using the Saxon books behind closed doors.

Mr. Mathews wrote, “Saxon is as irritating as a tax auditor to reformers who ask math teachers to break old habits and mark tests as though they were English papers, focusing as much on the clarity of the steps toward a solution as on the correctness of the answer.” The conclusion was that math teachers were having difficulty moving from teaching mathematics to teaching literature.

Chester E. Finn, Jr., a former professor of education, educational policy analyst, and former United States Assistant Secretary of Education, had followed John’s progress as well as his trials and tribulations. He particularly chastised the constant flow of “projects intended to set matters right” in education.**33** He said, “At every turn there is a new study, task force, panel, or committee.” Among such groups, he mentioned NCTM as a body funded by the U.S. Department of Education, the “august” National Academy of Sciences that had “given birth to a 34-member Mathematical Sciences Education Board, complete with half a dozen subcommittees,” and the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Science Foundation.

Dr. Finn wrote, “The pattern is familiar: A problem is found. A crisis is declared. The organizations that allowed the problem to develop commence, with ample fanfare, to unveil elaborate plans to solve it. Federal agencies and private foundations disgorge dollars. Committees are created, meetings held, draft reports circulated.”

He said that almost as familiar “is the emergence of a new ‘conventional wisdom’ about what went awry and what needs doing.” For example, kids shouldn’t have to be bored. “Drill and practice have become dirty words with the math avant garde, roughly equivalent to the standing of the Pledge of Allegiance among the social-studies cognoscenti.”

He then spoke of John Saxon—a renegade “who rarely finds himself invited to sip lime seltzer with today’s busy reformers.” Dr. Finn said that although such views of repetition ring true to most laymen (and athletes), they inflame the math profession. “Worse,” he said, is that “Saxon refuses to confess his sins.”

He said John’s critics concede he has one promising notion—that of “incremental development.” Saying it is neither the traditional approach nor faddish, Dr. Finn suggested that incremental development simply “looks awfully like an ornate term for common sense.”

Regardless, he did not think additional evidence favorable to John would move the profession. “For what is going on here is, above all, political. Never are defenders of a conventional wisdom pricklier than when they are themselves engaged in a lemming-like migration from one version to another. Never is heresy put down more harshly than when the dogmas of the established church are newly revised.”

Dr. Finn summarized, “If Saxon is right, then a lot of people with fat reputations in the field must be wrong. Education barons don’t like to be wrong. They like even less to be told they are wrong. So long as state and local educators can be dissuaded from buying more of Saxon’s books, he can be shunned. After all, what really matters isn’t whether youngsters learn math. It’s whether the profession gains in stature and public acclaim in consequence of its efforts, however ill-conceived, to address the problems it may fairly be said to have created—all the while retaining control of the processes of diagnosis and solution. Isn’t that what an establishment is all about?”

One of the lighter stories about the use of his books was reported by John in a 1987 advertisement in *The American School Board Journal*.**34** A Michigan high school teacher named Sheila K. Smith had sent him a letter to accompany a Valentine card that had been prepared by her students. She said that after one semester of the Saxon pilot program, students were trying to get into the Saxon classes at mid-year; parents were phoning her to see if she could “pull some strings” and other math teachers and administrators were asking, “Why do we have to wait another year to adopt this program?” She then wrote, “Our students would give up their shoes rather than surrender their Saxon books! (And we have 12 inches of snow on the ground.)”

Ms. Smith added, “Our school has a local TV school channel which broadcasts daily. Prior to semester exams, the teachers in each department prepare an exam review program which airs evenings and beams the review directly into the students homes for a week prior to exams. The math department aired a ‘crawl’ which said: ‘Saxon math students can correctly work their math problems while hanging upside down, underwater at midnight, blindfolded, with one hand tied behind their backs, writing with their toes, while chewing gum, eating crackers, whistling the National Anthem, fighting off marauding sharks, completing a correspondence course in bird watching on the moon, browsing through the *Encyclopedia Britannica*, and completing the meaning of the universe. Go Saxon Champions!’ That was our entire ‘review,’ and it was totally adequate for Saxon students!”

In closing, she said, “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.’”

Another high school teacher, Janice Harms of Missouri, sent a letter to the editor of the *Missouri* *Council of Teachers of Mathematics Bulletin *in 1985. She wrote,* “*In February 1984, I finally got so frustrated with teaching Algebra 2 to my students I decided to try John Saxon’s *Algebra 2* book. During 1984-85, I conducted a pilot study comparing the performance of my students using Dolciani’s *Algebra 2* book with the performance of students using Saxon’s book. The results indicated the Saxon class completed more homework, made higher grades and retained more algebraic knowledge. However, other factors, not measured, became apparent as the study progressed:

“As the year progressed, Saxon students learned to like word problems and not dread them.

The teacher could easily pinpoint what topic each student did not understand and could help clarify.

The teacher could use time effectively.

No worksheets needed to be made since enough practice was provided.

No review day was needed before a test because every assignment was a review.

Tests could be scheduled any day of the week to accommodate the teacher and students.

Little planning time was needed since topics were arranged in the most sensible order.

No tests needed to be made out. Two usable tests were provided.

If the teacher were absent, students could continue with their regular work no matter what the training of the substitute.

“I feel that every Saxon student had the best possible opportunity to learn (her emphasis) math, not just do problems and try to pass tests. For the first time I finished an algebra class with a good feeling and my students feel content with themselves. I hope my experience will be of help to you and others.”

Of particular note was her reference to substitute teachers. One of the greatest problems for all teachers is having a substitute who knows how to teach with the materials at hand. A frequent complaint about reform math materials is they are so different from the norm that substitute teachers cannot teach a math class adequately. The lost learning time for students because of substitute teachers, in general, has never been adequately determined. With Saxon materials, students can literally “run” the math class when the teacher is absent.**35**

Ten teachers signed a testimonial for John in one of his advertisements in 1988.**36** From Ukiah, California, the teachers said they had been using Saxon materials for three years and the series had allowed them to “become managers who could require that all steps of all problems be completed daily.” They said, “Students soon realized they couldn’t skip steps or problems and that understanding would come in time. They didn’t always like working so hard, but they rarely complained.”

“Our students smile a lot,” they wrote. “They have confidence they can learn. Our enrollment in Algebra 2 went from three to 11 sections in two years.” The teachers said they had gone from no students in calculus to 31 that year. “The greatest surprise is in the attitudes of the students. Saxon has improved our curriculum and also helped us become more creative and exacting teachers. We invite any contact with us for more information.”

An Oklahoma superintendent and the math chairman of an Arizona high school were featured with their testimonials in a 1986 advertisement.**37** Supt. Stanley Dixon said the Saxon books work wonders “but they are not magic.” He explained, “Saxon’s books work because they make the students work. Students become work oriented and don’t mind work because they learn. Grumbling stops in several weeks to be replaced with grudging admiration for what they have learned and are learning. They do not seem to mind working hard, as long as they succeed.”

Walter S. Hoffman from Arizona said, “As a calculus teacher and department chair for 20 years, I cannot describe the satisfaction our staff of 16 teachers feels. The chairman of our science department, a chemistry teacher, smiles at me every time we talk about the Saxon program. Saguaro High School heartily endorses all the Saxon tests published to date.”

As pointed out by several Saxon representatives through the years, these kinds of testimonials have been in stark contrast to other publishers who cannot produce similar raves about their products.

John’s materials quickly became the favored resource for homeschooling families. Speaking at a workshop of the Teaching Parents Association, a group representing an estimated 1,000 families that homeschool children, he said, “Isn’t that obscene—that mommas and daddies are having to educate their children at home, and they’re having to pay taxes?”**39** At another parents’ conference in Illinois, John told the crowd, “We can no longer afford to implement untested pedagogy. They have not been able to name one school that has used these methods to cause measurable gains.”**40**

In what seemed to be a bizarre twist of thinking, however, a handful of homeschooling parents did decide to ban Saxon in 1993, which included not printing his advertisements in their publications or even speaking his name.**41** One of their own took them on.

Mary Pride, publisher of** ***Practical Home Schooling* magazine, wrote about the brouhaha in her column. She told of how a few parents had begun to circulate letters condemning the Saxon texts as “New Age” and urging others to boycott them because, they said, the original Saxon texts had a light sprinkling of references to demons, poltergeists, and other spiritual beings. “John Saxon, not being either fundamentalist Christian or New Ager,” she wrote, “thought they were harmless ‘fairy tale’ creatures that could spice up his problems.” She said that John promptly cleaned up his books but letter writers objected to occasional use of words such as *hoyden *and *ribald*, references to medieval life. She acknowledged that, to them only, any mention of medieval occupations or weaponry was a sneaky plot to entwine readers in the occult.

Ms. Pride said she decided to read through *every *word problem in the Saxon editions and, subsequently, she came up with several conclusions. First, Saxon is very moralistic; his books use pejorative terms about sins such as cheating, boastful behavior, laziness, etc, and condemns certain behavior as wrong. “If this isn’t Christian, take me out and shoot me!” she wrote. Second, Saxon attempts to spark interest in other school subjects such as history and chemistry with frequent allusions to historic, literary, and scientific subjects. Third, the references to fairies, etc., were few and far between but were inevitably irreverent. (Some books have no such references, she said.) “No true New Ager would like a picture of the fairy queen counting toadstools,” said Ms. Pride. “It sounds too much like Saxon *doesn’t believe* in these things.”

Her column then printed every single questionable problem from the current editions of Saxon books. She concluded that objecting parents, after reading the problems, had the following choices: “Use the books as is; use any problems you consider questionable to teach your children the truth about fairies, magicians, etc.; or use a Magic Marker (“Oops,” she said, “a felt-tipped marker!”) to delete problems you don’t like or eliminate the problems altogether.”

In a boxed area in the center of her magazine page, Ms. Pride had composed the following word problem for her readers:

Q. If the math book had over 120 chapters, each with over 29 problems, plus an additional 200-plus problems in the back, and if only 10 of the problems were questionable, what percent of the problems were questionable?—MP

Lastly, she showed each book’s total number of problems with the number of potentially questionable ones that might upset these parents.

Math 54: More than 4,500 problems, with 12 problems (elves, leprechauns, etc.)

Math 65: No questionable problems

Math 76: About 5,000 problems, with 6 problems

Math 87: More than 4,000 problems, with 5 problems

Alg ½: More than 4,500 problems, with 10 problems

Alg 1: More than 4,500 problems, with 8 problems

Alg 2: About 4,000 problems, with 5 problems

Adv Math: More than 4,000 problems, with 3 problems

She ended her column by saying, “John Saxon encourages you to send problems you would LIKE to see in his upcoming editions.”

Ms. Pride also gave John space to respond to the critical parents.**42** “I have removed offensive things, such as replacing *demons* with *gremlins*.” He then explained that as a pilot in WWII, the metal would contract at 20,000 feet and make grinding and squealing noises; pilots invented “gremlins” for little men running around causing these strange noises. He said he had removed *ghouls, poltergeists*, etc. “I thought those were medieval folk tales and I put them in the book for fun for the kids.” He said he had taken out everything that referred to the occult, but, “I adamantly refuse to take out ghosts, fairies, leprechauns, and all the wonderful little imaginary people that populate the Disney movies and the stories that children have found so fascinating for hundreds of years.”

John wrote that the only way anyone can fight the occult is to make a joke of it. “You can’t protect children from rampant things in our society by refusing ever to talk about them,” he said. He really *couldn’t* understand their violent objection to the mention of Greek gods. “If your children are not familiar with the Greek gods, they lose much of our heritage,” contended John. “All of the famous writers of the 18^{th} and 19^{th} and 20^{th} centuries make reference to Greek mythology, not because the Greek gods were true and not because the Greek myths were true, but because everything we have in our culture comes from the Jews and the Greeks.”

Expressing a sense of bewilderment, John said, “Most letters are from good people who confuse Christianity and ignorance. What distresses me is how much pleasure many of these Christians get out of hate. Of all the things they could spend their energy on, it looks like I would be the least offensive because my books do so much for their children’s understanding of math.” He then added that for words the parents considered offensive, “A good solution is to explain there are no such things as ghost and there are no fairies.”

For most other parents, their anger was about the mathematical concepts and principles missing from their children’s books. That finally culminated in 1994 in California. Some parents feared their children—who many said could not even make correct change when counting money—were being left behind by a politically correct and mathematically incorrect educational experiment. They said the California Math Frameworks that was issued in 1992 for schools to follow was responsible for causing a serious downturn in the quality of mathematics course materials in California. In the Vista school district, parents rebelled when they learned their children’s textbooks were trying to make math easier to swallow by not requiring correct answers. One fourth-grade textbook told teachers: “Your job is…not to judge the rightness and wrongness of each student’s answer. Let those determinations come from the class….Avoid showing any verbal or nonverbal signs of approval and ask, ‘Does everybody agree?’”**43**

Parents were becoming attuned to recognizing the spin by government leaders who had put their faith and money behind the NCTM program. For example, U.S. Education Secretary Richard Riley released “modest improvement” scores in April, 1993,** 44** and said the report showed, “a positive statement about the increased attention that is being given to mathematics in our schools and in our homes.”**45** What the report actually showed was that, nationally, only one in four students had fully mastered the math at his or her grade level or beyond; only two to four percent showed any superior math performance; and only six of 10 students mastered the mathematics expected at their grade levels.**46** Even Iris Carl, past president of NCTM, admitted this meant the students’ major improvements were at very low levels. Sec. Riley did agree that “Perhaps the best magic comes from hard work, challenging curriculum, and improved practice geared to world standards.”**47**

Adding to the fuel of parent discontent were the results in 1995 of the TIMSS (Trends in Mathematics and Science Studies) report.**48** It was the most comprehensive international studies ever attempted, with researchers comparing the mathematics and science educational levels of more than one-half million students around the world. American students outperformed math students in only two other countries: Cyprus and South Africa.

A group of parents decided it was time to make their presence and their views known to educators who, they feared in the words of one concerned father, "are making experiments of our children."**49** Many of these parents, joined by college mathematicians, would become supporters of *Saxon Mathematics* in the textbook adoption battles of California, and they would ultimately win.

## Chapter 15(2/2) John Saxon's Story read by Paul and Jenny Hatch