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The Legend of John Saxon, Math Warrior

Warning, this article contains superlatives and extreme statements. How should we teach the young? I believe everyone should be passionate about the answers. The country’s 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.

I've just finished “John Saxon’s 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 it’s 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_SaxonJohn 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.·

The field was not level. The Education Establishment used its vast strength to promote Reform Math (an inferior approach) and to discredit John Saxon. Think of what Governor Scott Walker had to endure in the single state of Wisconsin. Saxon had to fight equivalent battles in most states and many cities, sometimes school district by school district, school by school, grade by grade.

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 Saxon’s Story contains hundreds of anecdotes and quotations that illuminate Saxon’s 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. That’s 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. Here’s 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 (sight-word reading instruction) are nearly identical twins. Rarely discussed in the same article, both are counter-productive pedagogies that keep children from learning whatever 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 Saxon’s methods. I came away thinking that Hayes would be an excellent Secretary of Education.

Bruce Deitrick Price is an author, artist, and education reformer. He founded Improve-Education.org in 2005; his site explains theories and methods.

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