Do you wonder what is wrong with Math in America? Niki Hayes documented the criminal history of it in her book.
From the author…
Dedicated to my parents, Harold and Sara Smith, common sense folks who modeled good teaching, and to my Kansas cousin Jeananne Blakely, who gives unceasing support for my efforts.
John Saxon initiated a profound and positive impact on American mathematics education in 1981. His story, after fifteen months of research and interviews, evolved into far more than a two-dimensional portrait of this colorful teacher and author who died in 1996. For one thing, the incredible establishment of Saxon Publishers, an entrepreneurial venture that had little expectation of succeeding according to the math establishment leadership, had to be told. The content of his revolutionary new program, on which that publishing house was built into a multi-million dollar enterprise, became another important element in the story.
Since his math series is still highly rated by those who use it today, it seemed appropriate that a user-friendly “teaching” almanac be included in the book. It would explain the correct way to use his program, mostly in John’s own words.
Finally, for total clarity of the whole John Saxon story, an up-to-date review had to show whether or not his constant, irritating demands on the mathematics establishment leadership—that have made them despise him even to this day—were warranted.
In fact, they were. John’s unique design for successful mathematics programs for kindergarten through the twelfth grade has been confirmed by respected individuals of academic stature and reputation. To him, his math program was nothing more than common sense.
John Saxon’s Story thus turned into a comprehensive history of a rare man who showed a genius for using equally rare common sense in the world of mathematics education. It is hoped that the thoroughness but the clarity of this story would have pleased him.
Nakonia (Niki) Hayes
Preface to John Saxon’s Story
A revolutionary’s approach
John was a man in a hurry and he didn’t have time to play nice with people who had power over children’s learning.
It was one thing for John Saxon to take on the mathematics education establishment. It was another for him to take on a special interest group whose followers were bankrolled by the federal government.
With $83 million in federal tax dollars being pumped into the math education reformists’ camps during the 1990’s, any entrepreneur not in the chosen circle, who opposed reform math methods,and who was publishing his own math textbooks would have battle more than their high-dollar funding. He would have to challenge the political ideology that guided all their decisions regarding America’s math program.1
While facing the unfair financial competition from those who had the federal tax dollars to use as their own capital, John soon learned their two major supporters—the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the U.S. Department of Education (USDoE)—would act as political stonewalls against any “outsider” opposing them.2 He would learn about the insincerity of many educators who preached tolerance and diversity of individual thinking—unless he agreed with them. But far worse, he would learn how American education had become more about adults than about children.
To the math reformists’ exasperation, John persisted as if bringing to life a Don Quixote character attacking their big windmills. Unbelievably, after starting his own publishing company in 1981 with $80,000 scraped together through loans and savings, John’s business was earning $27 million when he died in 1996, in spite of the reformists’ efforts to shut him down on a daily basis.
“Saxon believers” became hardened and resistant to anyone who disparaged his products because they had seen the undeniable results—kids who actually liked math and were being successful. For the reformists, it was his insistence that he was right in how American students should be taught mathematics, as evidenced by stacks of irrefutable and proven data, that was a truth they refused to accept.
In a bizarre imitation and with no acknowledgment, they have since become willing to incorporate many of his practices—and even his words—in their reform curriculum materials.3
In 1989, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) published a document called Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics.4 Their self-proclaimed authority was endorsed by the NSF and USDoE and, starting in 1990, the government’s massive funding began flowing to members and supporters of the NCTM leadership who often served as consultants and authors for the new materials.5
With vast sums of money to spread among districts that would use their unresearched curricula, they became powerful resources for schools who had never recovered from the 1960’s “new math” debacle and were looking for a rescue plan for both mathematics and science education. The NCTM document became the bible for states to use when writing their own standards and by teacher training institutions as they readied teachers to go into the nation’s schools. They became an entrenched special interest group of “leaders” of the mathematics establishment to whom business and government officials repeatedly have returned to for guidance, including today.
The newly-enacted state standards and training courses mandated that NCTM values, as stated in that group’s publications, be implemented in school classrooms across the country. Their top priority was the establishment of egalitarianism through mathematics instruction. Lessons were specifically to be “redesigned” to appeal to special subgroups of minorities (except Asians) and girls, who supposedly preferred group settings, lots of verbalization, hands-on activities, and self-actualization through “discovering” (inventing) mathematical concepts and principles.6 White males and Asians were left out of the “reformed” program because they reportedly learned by linear and deductive reasoning compared to girls and minorities who, according to limited education research sources, preferred lessons based on inductive reasoning.
The NCTM focus had to be on these subgroups, they believed, in order to bring required equity among students within the mathematics classroom. If the boys’ and Asians’ “learning styles” were not addressed, that was not a problem for the teachers to consider. John railed against the lack of research to support the outcomes of such a racist and sexist plan.
Also, with his respect for historically-developed concepts, principles, and subsequent wisdom gained by building upon generational knowledge—within many disciplines, not just mathematics—John was angry that reformists deliberately chose to ignore these rich paths of learning and focus on having children “create” their own histories of mathematical understanding. This was a foolish waste of precious learning time, he declared.
With 27 years of his using mathematics in the real world, John believed that clarity should be the number one priority in mathematics education as students worked for accurate results. As a military officer with three engineering degrees, a former combat pilot in Korea, and a test pilot who risked his life to fly experimental and innovative aircraft, John knew the value of clarity in answers to real problems of mathematics in his own work.
He knew that, literally, life or death could result from solutions in mathematics. Therefore, results mattered. He also knew that clarity in the problem-solving process could get him to answers more quickly and that could also impact a life or death situation. Processes and results thus had to mesh so that both were clear and accurate.
John learned that consequential understanding in the analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluative thinking that were required to solve mathematics problems helped students learn mental operation skills to be used not only in mathematics but in other disciplines and throughout their lives. That was the power of learning real mathematics, he said.
The problem was in getting the depth of mathematics put into simplified pieces for easier comprehension and application. It did not mean changing the historical discipline, as was being done by NCTM followers, so completely that it became unrecognizable to parents, confusing to students, and even frustrating to many of their teachers. The desire of NCTM to “recreate”historically-proven mathematics procedures in order for them to fit into certain students’ perceived “learning styles” would prove disastrous, he said. Mathematics content explanations and student learning would both suffer.
John truly appreciated the internationally recognized symbols and proven algorithms and procedures that could be shared across borders. This common knowledge could be offered from one country to another in solving critical problems at the international, national and local levels. That was the consistent contribution of mathematics: historically-based and studied, universally used, and with solid teaching and learning about the immediate cause and effect for individual decisions.
Changing the purpose of mathematics, a balanced discipline which had been designed for thousands of years to get the right answer in the most efficient way, could cost a person and even a society more than time. It could rob each of a successful future. In essence, John’s real mission became one of saving children’s lives from inept math education practices. He wanted them to be able to choose a career they wanted, rather than having a job forced on them for lack of a solid foundation in mathematics.
John persisted in his mission because of his own values and pragmatism. It is the lack of values clarification between those who agree with John’s philosophy and those who promote the reform agenda that has been underappreciated by a rising tide of unhappy parents against resistant curricula decision makers in the escalating of “math wars” in local school districts and even some states.
Because of the increased opposition to their NCTM program, they hired Dr. James Hiebert, a professor of education at the University of Delaware, to write a report in 1999 about the criticism regarding their lack of research to support their 1989 Curriculum Standards.7 He offered a simple but profound observation: “Only debates about values and priorities will be decisive [in finding common ground for examining research].” He said that opposing sides would always be able to find research to support their points of view.
Proof of which values are most effective in producing success in mathematics education, according to John, would come from three sources: Significantly higher math scores on national and internationally-recognized tests, consistently higher scores on college board exams, and a major increase in enrollment in higher mathematics and science courses (since mathematics is the language of science.) He already had data showing the remarkable success of his own program. The reformists did not.
Their spin and ink have been consistent, nonetheless, as they have steadfastly refused to meet John’s challenge, even today, more than a decade after his death. Why should they? The reformists had quietly gained political control of the public education system in the 1920’s. The NCTM then gained total control within mathematics education in the 1990’s with that huge influx of federal dollars to those who supported their ideology. With that much power, why should they have to prove anything to John Saxon or any other dissatisfied person or group, including parents?
In the beginning, all John had wanted to do was publish his newly-authored first year algebra book.He had written it at his dining room table, proven it produced good results with his junior college students, and he even had outstanding results during a year-long field test in middle and high schools during 1980-81. That’s more than any other mathematics textbook had ever done—shown proof of its productive capacity before it was put on the market.
Yet, six New York City publishers rebuffed him because he didn’t meet their one criterion for authoring a high school mathematics textbook: He wasn’t a “committee of experts.” Only in education, John learned, were a person’s academic credentials and relationships more important than results. So John went home to Norman, Oklahoma, and started his own publishing company. In 1981, he sold 3,000 books. Five years later, he was earning several million dollars a year. By 1996, when he died, the $27 million in sales of Saxon Publishers was growing at 35 percent a year.
This is therefore the story of how John Saxon started a second career as a math teacher after retiring from the U.S. Air Force and then finding himself working toward one specific goal: improving his junior college students’ knowledge in algebra. He had come to understand that algebra was a critical crossing point into other mathematics courses which many students needed for a preferred career. If they didn’t make it through algebra successfully, their life choices of careers could be—would be—totally altered. As he often explained, “I darned near flunked algebra. Without it, my engineering degree would have been out of reach.”
John’s worry about his students had led to his discovery that simply reorganizing the mathematics information inside a concept could simplify its being learned and reduce student anxiety. He figured out how to cut mathematics concepts into small pieces, shuffle them among each other so that no one concept was ever left in a “hunk” (or chapter) to learn, and have students review those pieces continually throughout the year (every day). This, he believed, would help “automate” their skills and improve their memory of those skills. The automation through constant review of basic pieces would allow students to work increasingly difficult problems without getting hung up on the foundational steps of algebra.
He called his new idea incremental development with continual review. By 1976 he had two paperback books of problems he had created from scratch which were being used successfully by his Oscar Rose Community College students in Midwest City, Oklahoma. In 1979 and 1980, those books were published in two volumes by Prentice-Hall Publishing.9 By then, he had become frustrated as he realized that foundational problems in algebra shouldn’t even have to be experienced by students fresh out of high school. The problem of their learning algebra proficiently needed to be taken care of before they reached college.
Convincing 20 Oklahoma middle and high school teachers to try his basic college textbook and compare it with the regular textbook they were using, John saw much to his delight that his simplified method for teaching the “hard discipline” of Algebra I could deliver absolutely outstanding results in both the high school and middle school levels. This field test was even monitored and verified by the American Federation of Teachers of Oklahoma.
Not only did the students who used his method learn the fundamentals of mathematics required in algebra more substantially as shown through quantitative test scores, but they had learned to like the subject because they succeeded in it. In subsequent data reports from across the country, Saxon students went on to take more mathematics classes and they made higher scores on all types of tests, including those for college entrance. The teachers who used his unique method swore by it and lined up to testify on its behalf. To them, its mathematical simplicity was pure elegance.11 This provided him with the qualitative data, generally cherished by education researchers, to support the quantitative test scores.
Because his program design was in fact deceptively simple, the reformists denigrated it as “simplistic” and openly stated it was for the “lower-level” student. The fact that at least 50 percent of American students were scoring at the “lower level” of performance on national and international mathematics tests was lost in their observation of his work.
Even though John’s design produced unbelievable test scores and increased enrollment in higher mathematics courses, they ridiculed it as not producing students who were “creative thinkers.” Thinking creatively somehow did not mesh, for them, with students who were progressing to higher levels of performance in more demanding coursework in both mathematics and sciences. They dismissed test scores as unimportant because they said that no written test could fully measure a student’s abilities. This attitude was repeatedly stated as students’ college board exam scores were declining and were becoming part of an exponentially growing number who needed remedial math in colleges and universities. Ironically, when the same tests reflected any increase, no matter how slight, these scores were hailed as proof of their program’s success.
In spite of their own lack of successful results, the NCTM supporters used their political clout to establish state standards based on their values to help block John’s books. He persevered against them with an energy that defied those around him. As Linda Rhodes, the Oklahoma sales representative, explained, “A competitor’s sales agent once said to me that when they find Saxon, it’s like they fall into a black hole. They never come back.” John’s more eloquent supporters argued they didn’t see his methods “as a retreat into the past, but as a post-modern appropriating of traditions for their effectiveness in the present.”
One news report confirmed the obvious, however: “As a brash challenger to the American educational system, Saxon is sure to find intellectual ambushes along the path to progress.”
To be clear, John knew his mannerisms could be unappealing to many staid educators who preached their own version of “good behavior.” Being a military man, he could lace his conversation on occasion with profanity. They didn’t like that. He talked decisively with expressive gestures using his hands and sometimes scrunching up his face as he was making those points. They didn’t like that intensity. (He did learn to hold his hands closed in front of him because his earlier hand-punctuations-in-the-air were said to be distracting to listeners.
Anger could be clearly apparent when he talked, not masked behind “smiles and agreement” before any clarity had been reached, and this was reported in news stories with descriptions of his “flashing or piercing blue eyes” and “evangelical zeal.” (In fact, John’s eyes were hazel.) One reporter from Massachusetts wrote in 1983, “He has no need to use a microphone when he speaks. He booms out his message through clinched teeth in a voice that resonates with enthusiasm. And as he talks—with one hand closed in a fist and the other nervously jingling coins in a pocket of his perfectly pressed pants—John Saxon’s eyes are fired with the zeal of a missionary convinced that he can save men’s souls.”
Then there was the time he was making a pitch to the Dallas, Texas, teachers in the mid-1980’s. He jumped on top of the conference table and proceeded to tell them how they were doing everything wrong. They sure didn’t like that. In spite of such a “commanding” display by John, the Dallas superintendent bought the Saxon program. The undeniable results turned out to be more eye-popping than John’s table-top behavior according to one Dallas teacher.
In essence, John was a man in a hurry and he didn’t have time to play nice with people who had power over children. He was willing, even eager, to be dubbed the “angry man of mathematics education” in order to draw attention to the American crisis in a key field of study for any society.17 Because of his age and arriving on the education scene in his fifties, he often commented that he had a limited time to try and stop the education machinery that was grinding up American children. Being a tactician, he deliberately set out to make a lot of people mad, both inside and outside of education circles in hopes of getting them to talk about the issues. It worked.
“I’ll make them so mad they’ll spit every time they hear my name. And that will rub off on the major book companies, and the major publishing companies will be slow to copy me,” he said, followed by his well known and distinctive high-pitch laugh. That meant he could get his unique, revolutionary, successful books into the hands of students, teachers, and parents without weakened, modified imitations of his work.
His opponents thought his behavior was part of a strategy to make money. It was, instead, John’s strategy to “spread the message.”
Upon his death in 1996, one of his opponents was joyfully greeted by her husband at an airport, exclaiming, “I’ve got some great news for you! John Saxon is dead!” She let out a loud “whoop” and joined in his excitement. Such antagonism was the attitude John and his supporters often faced. But the big difference between John and his opponents was that he saw life as a time in which to be enthusiastically engaged, especially when combating those who opposed his ideas.
For that reason, he would never have jumped with joy if one of them had died. As an example, when hearing about a blocking of his book by a state or district, one of his favorite sayings was, “Now the fun begins.” A humorist at heart, John admitted he often had a good time reveling in his stalemate with math academicians.
A more touching response was written by a Saxon company employee, Shannon Floyd, when she sent an e-mail after his death to fellow employees, his customer base, and colleagues:
“We will miss his voice, his laughter, his joking, his idealism, and his honesty. Most of us felt John as a personal presence with emotional impact. All of us felt him as a presence of unquestioned authority throughout the company he built from nothing but an idea. His spirit not only made books and the mission that formed Saxon Publishers, but his love for his work was palpable in the Saxon offices every day. “He renewed us with his vigor and his belief in something bigger than himself.
We rejoiced with him over the high scores resulting from his first books, over the discovery of Stephen Hake as an author who embraced the same teaching philosophy, over the success of Nancy Larson’s primary math program, over the unprecedented victory John and Kathi [Greene] achieved in Georgia in January 1995, over the curriculum bridge the company crossed in publishing Lorna Simmons’ Saxon Phonics, over the milestones passed as the company has grown in space and employees—we couldn’t help rejoicing with John because his own excitement demanded it.
“He was often as difficult as he was unusual. He could exhaust you in a one-hour conversation. He was relentless in pursuing his goals and absolutely committed to his own viewpoint; an argument with John Saxon lasted until his opponent gave in out of self-defense.
This ruthlessness was tempered by the fact that you always knew that John was acting not merely out of self-interest but out of what he felt was right. You could accuse him of many things, but not hyprocrisy. We appreciate the fact that we were allowed to know him and benefit from his vision, and we hope for the strength and the knowledge to keep his company thriving without him. It will never be the same without John Saxon but it can continue to be a mission of excellence. This is the house that John built—long may it teach.”
“The house that John built” took a non-compromising stand on one side of the “math wars” that started raging in school districts and states around the late-1980s. In fact, it could be said that John was one of the first who declared open warfare against those who would subvert the purpose of mathematics education in America for their own ideology or for financial and prestigious gains. A reporter wrote in The Los Angeles Times in 1982, “Like many passionate men, he perceives his mission as a journey into a valley of greedy enemies. To him, the enemies are publishing houses that place profit over educating and textbook authors who write with ‘arrogant’ disregard for the compelling needs of students.”
Readers learn in Section 1 about John Saxon’s life of “adventuring” before he entered the publishing world; his foray into teaching, the writing of his first textbook, and the battles he had to fight to get his ideas accepted in schools and states, and his legacy within the company and among his colleagues. This covers John Saxon through his death in 1996 and the sale of his company in 2004.
Then, Section 2, which is composed of Chapters 23-25, is designed to be a stand-alone publication. Called “A Math Warrior’s Almanac,” it details, mostly in John’s own words, his philosophy of teaching and the correct methods that can produce success when using his program. It also appears on
for sale as a separate PDF book for $9. This special publication in October 2009 was to give parents, civic leaders, and independent-thinking educators a source to use in response to the U.S. Department of Education’s push for national standards in mathematics and reading.
Section 3 is an extensive epilogue that gives up-to-date information about new reports regarding mathematics education and the politics surrounding them.
Writing this book was possible only because of John Saxon’s great admiration for the role of history on any present day perspective. It is not surprising that he began personally keeping a scrapbook of articles about the growth of his company. He eventually turned this project over to an employee with the results being five scrapbooks the size of newsprint pages that contained 1,945 items. These scrapbooks were begun in 1981 and ended in 2004 with the sale of the company.
It was this source of rich history that provided major insight into his thinking as shown in his personally-written, usually blistering advertisements and newspaper and magazine articles. These scolded the “math elites” for their failing methods and told about his own amazing new design for mathematics textbooks. Fortunately, he was a prolific writer who knew how to write for the general public’s understanding, a gift that is considered rare among those in the fields of mathematics and mathematics education.
His four children were equally aware of the importance of keeping a history of their father’s life. They began recording oral histories via video tapes in 1987. His last recording was in 1995, one year before his death. There were tapes of his military “war stories,” about his funeral, his surprise 70th birthday party, and a retirement “goodbye tape” to controller and vice president of operations Jill Gasaway.
John also made DVDs that were prepared for distribution to national media figures including Geraldo Rivera and Don Hewitt of 60 Minutes. Other DVDs were comprised of television and radio reports and interviews, including one with Dick Cavett about the Saxon math program and its battles with the math establishment. All of this material was generously provided to the author by his youngest child, Sarah Saxon Perkins.
Even more memorabilia of letters, family histories, and family scrapbooks was offered by his second child, Selby Saxon Harrison. His eldest child, John Saxon III (Johnny), proudly showed me morabilia framed for display in his home—magazine covers, math convention buttons, and a Navajo rug woven with “Saxon” centered in bold black letters. Bruce, the third child, offered interview time and more personal stories.
John’s four children are his greatest legacy according to his own words. Their clear devotion to their father and to each other indicate he knew how to be a loving father as well as a master teacher about family relationships. His sister, Anne, at age 82, confirmed that John’s greatest quality as a man was being a wonderful father. It was also from her written stories about John, which Selby shared for this biography, that much insight was available about him as a child.
Thanks also go to those who knew John Saxon as employer, friend, and mathematics educator and who recounted memories of their lives with him. It is only with these individuals that this book could have made complete its portrayal of a man who lived a life of “adventuring” from the time he took his first breath until his last—when he was still talking about his next book to be published. Among these colleagues were Frank Wang, Gerard Robins, Stephen Hake, Stanley Hartzler, Charles Hodge, Sue Gorker, Jill Gasaway, Nancy Larson, Mae Cox, and Linda Rhodes.
The original linchpin in this journey was Nancy Johnson, however, who worked for Saxon Publishers for 19 years in Fairfield, Texas. As the manager for sales support for Texas, and Saxon sales representative Charles Hodge’s daughter, she was the first source for names, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses of key players in the John Saxon story.
On a personal level, my thanks go to a special circle of women friends who understood my absence from the group as this project turned into a daily mission for 15 months. Those ladies include Candace Mullen, Pat Maskunas, Avis Page, Donna Garner, and Juanita Suarez.
End of Preface
*Results, not methodology, should be the basis of curriculum decisions.
*Creativity springs unsolicited from a well prepared mind.
*Mathematics is an individual sport and is not a team sport.
*Students do not detest work; they detest effort without purpose.
*Beautiful explanations do not lead to understanding.
*Saxon books will win every contest by an order of magnitude.
*Teachers are not paid to teach. Teachers are paid to find a way for students to learn. You do not teach mathematics with your head, but with your heart.
*Making eyes sparkle does not come from erudite mathematics.
*Teachers say they are going to teach the children to think. The children can think already. What they need to know is the math to use in their thinking.
*Dr. Benjamin Bloom says you must overlearn beyond mastery until you can do it like Fred Astaire said: “Do the dance while reading Shakespeare.”
*I contend that our job is to teach rewarding responses to mathematical stimuli, to teach thought patterns that have been found to lead to the solutions, to allow the students to practice reacting to the stimuli with these thought patterns and to be rewarded with the warm feeling of pride that accompanies the correct answer.
*I believe that students should be gently led and constantly applauded for their efforts.
*I oppose intimidation in any form. Mathematics classes can become warm sanctuaries towards which students gravitate because there they are asked to solve puzzles by using familiar thought patterns.
*Most math books are like the Book of Revelation—horror stories and surprises from beginning to end. Students see my book as the 23rd Psalm. It’s a nice safe place to go.
*You grasp an abstraction almost by osmosis through long-term exposure.
*You can’t put your hand on it. That’s the reason we call it an abstraction.
*We’ve never had research that shows how long it takes for students to absorb abstractions in mathematics. It takes a long time. Then the summer lets them forget it.
*Meaningful education research is an oxymoron. We have more education research in America than all the other countries and kids are at the bottom.
*The math educators spend time at the universities playing like their scientists and they publish their papers.
*If it were possible to teach people to think, it would be possible to teach professors of mathematics education to be mathematicians. The only difference between a mathematician and a professor of mathematics education is the creative spark.
*We have allowed this fraud, this pasquinade, on education by these people who are literal and total gross incompetents, and they have destroyed mathematics education in America to the point that I, a retired Air Force test pilot who has flown two combat tours, and whose profession was killing, know more about teaching than they do.
*It has to stop right here, right now.
*The time for inactive skepticism is past.
*I’m going to bypass the math establishment because a man convinced against his will is of the same opinion. I will run over these people with a bulldozer.
*Either I am the most brilliant thing to come down the pike, having doubled some students’ test scores, or the people in charge of math texts are totally incompetent.
*This is more than one man lighting a candle. When they see the brilliance of this candle, they’re going to have to light their own or be overpowered.
*I know I don’t make headway by speaking out this way, but I am determined to change this system of math education.
*Our math experts aren’t really experts; they have abdicated all claim to control by their behavior of the last 20 years.
*I’m mad, and I’m doing something about it!
Introduction: the early influences
While he studied the internal workings of his opponents
in order to fight them effectively; they clearly did not do the same.
John Saxon’s mother said after his birth in 1923—this being her first born—that she didn’t think she wanted another child. At her age of 30, she said he just “wore her out.” He was a demanding presence from birth—very active, difficult to manage, and hard to discipline. He wasn’t defiant, just determined to do what he wanted.1
He was, from the start, fully engaged in life—going forward in every direction. Any voice or directive that interfered with his activities was to be ignored. John later refined that behavior into “adventuring” as he taught his four children to experience all of life’s events as fully as possible—especially the non-material ones. And even though his mother didn’t plan on having another child, a baby sister, Anne, arrived two months before John’s fourth birthday.
John continued to push boundaries throughout his 72 years which included three distinct careers. In his first one, he finally learned to channel his boundless energy due to the regulated structure he had to follow at the United States Military Academy at West Point, but he was able to fulfill his need for bold activity over the next 21 years as a combat pilot in the Korean War, an Air Force test pilot, and a year in Vietnam. After teaching engineering at the U.S. Air Force Academy for five years before being sent to Vietnam, John retired from the military in 1970 as a lieutenant colonel. After settling his family in Norman, Oklahoma, he followed what seemed to be a natural progression into teaching mathematics part time in a junior college. This became his second career for the next 15 years. His third and overlapping career to his teaching duties was his becoming a mathematics textbook author and publisher.
John Harold Saxon, Jr., born Dec. 10, 1923, in Moultrie, Georgia, came from a family of teachers, physicians, farmers, and “contributors.”2 His mother, Zollie McArthur Saxon was called “Mimmy” (pronounced like “Timmy”) by her children and was a graduate of Agnes Scott College, a Presbyterian-affiliated liberal arts school for women in Atlanta. She had been a teacher for several years before marrying John’s father and later taught her son a firm grasp of Latin as well as a love for reading.
His father was graduated from Oxford College at Emory University and earned a master’s degree from Mercer University. Called Harold, he had been a teacher, principal, superintendent, State High School Supervisor for Georgia, Secretary of the Georgia Accrediting Commission, and then Executive Secretary of the Georgia Education Association until his death in 1956.
John was a descendant of Daniel and Jennet McArthur, who arrived from Scotland in 1744 to settle in North Carolina. Daniel served in the North Carolina regiments during the Revolutionary War, after which one of his children, John, and his wife Harriet moved to Georgia around 1814. There, he became a prosperous farmer. His son Daniel was a licensed physician and practicing dentist. Daniel had 11 children, one of whom was John Saxon’s maternal grandfather, Charles Zollicoffer McArthur, an 1899 graduate of the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Atlanta. He practiced dentistry until ill health “compelled him to retire” and he started farming peaches and pecans.3
John’s paternal family members were also early settlers in the new colonies, starting in 1698 in Virginia with Samuel Saxon. As an adult, Samuel moved to North Carolina, where he died in 1766. The Saxon family then moved to South Carolina. Two of the men served as captains in the South Carolina Militia during the Revolutionary War and his great-grandfather later served as a colonel in the Confederate States of America. His grandparents had four children, three girls and a boy, and one of those girls would prove to be a particular blessing to her only brother, John’s father.
That special sister, Lizzabel Saxon, who died at age 102 in 1990, “had benefited from a Methodist evangelist, Dr. Sam Jones, who saw that she had an unusual ability and asked to be her benefactor as she pursued her education.”4 She was graduated magna cum laude from Agnes Scott College. Its website today describes the continuing purpose of the school, founded in 1889, as being one “to educate women to think deeply, live honorably and engage the intellectual and social challenges of their times.” She was presented with scholarships each year for the “highest grade accomplishments.” Lizzabel received her master’s degree from Columbia University and taught foreign language and mathematics in Atlanta area schools until 1953. It was “Auntiebelle” who ensured that her brother and sisters could attend college if they chose to do so with her financial and emotional support. Because of her, John’s father was given the opportunity to become a teacher and administrator.
The educator’s tradition extended into John’s marriage as his wife, Mary Esther, became a university librarian later in their marriage. This continued her family’s respected history within education. Mary Esther’s mother had been a teacher and her father, D. Bruce Selby, was the Enid, Oklahoma, high school principal from 1939 to 1954. Much beloved by the whole community, Mr. Selby’s funeral was the largest ever seen in the city when he died in 1968. John’s daughter, Selby, said that when her grandfather died, she remembered her dad wept for days. “He said my grandfather was the kindest man he had ever met. It’s the first time I saw Daddy cry like that.”5
John thus had a rich history of educated family members with teachers among them, as well as a powerful education of his own making. However, a strong Georgian accent, while charming to many, was said to have contributed to the discriminatory caricature among some elitists toward Southerners, as pointed out by the new CEO of his company in 2002.6 Such people couldn’t know and evidently didn’t care to learn that John had witnessed what good teaching and learning was all about from his mother and what politicking within the insular world of public education was all about from his father.
He also absorbed a lifelong lesson from Auntibelle who loved both mathematics and foreign languages, as well as helping others in her family and community. That is, because of his family’s rich diversity of interests and studies, John actually embodied the philosophy of “integrated” learning from the “real world” so promoted by his opponents. His son Johnny says his father was a true Renaissance man because he truly loved history, good literature (poetry, especially), and foreign languages. The mathematics needed in his career became a valuable tool that helped him enjoy all those other areas of life.
It was this background—a innate drive to experience life to the fullest, a joy for learning and teaching and giving to others (which was further instilled with the West Point motto of “duty, honor, and country”), and being deeply moved by truly special educators—that drove John Saxon into battle against the disastrous condition of mathematics education in America. He learned to distrust and, more, to despise a blind allegiance to ideology rather than to providing positive results to children.
While he studied the internal workings of his opponents in order to fight them effectively, they clearly did not do the same. They thought if they just ignored this “military man” who had invaded their territory, he would go away. This cost them, professionally. Their reactions to him and his program showed them to be false practitioners of tolerance, diversity, and creative thinking toward any individual who would not follow their ideology without question. It also cost them financially. By the time John’s company was purchased in 2004 by a major publisher, eight years after his death, it had sold seven million books throughout 100 countries.
John Saxon had proven a mathematics textbook did not have to be a clone of those that came before it. He was indeed, as Johnny said, a Renaissance man who saw the bigger picture of what students needed for a lifetime of achievement and, at the same time, was willing to be a strong warrior for just causes.
That warrior mentality would be the one John Saxon called upon, surprising his opponents with a vigor and determination they had not witnessed before in America’s world of mathematics education.
End of Introduction
Quotes from supporters
John Saxon wrote a masterful mathematics program, but his “Saxonisms” could and should apply to every classroom in America. By skillfully revealing the genius of John Saxon, Niki Hayes, an experienced educator herself, has produced a practical teachers’ manual for both new and experienced teachers.
Here is Saxon at his very best: “A firm footing in the fundamentals prepares them to handle the theoretical for all disciplines…Students who practice diagramming sentences and who write numerous essays, book reports, and stories are better equipped to debate literature. Students who memorize names and dates and speeches and documents are better equipped to debate history.”
Retired English teacher
and education activist
As an elementary teacher with a math degree, I have always created my own curriculum for math while pulling from multiple resources. Saxon is the first curriculum that I have used to its entirety because it is a turn key comprehensive textbook. The weekly diagnostic test is especially important because it provides immediate feedback for clarification and remediation. The level of confidence and proficiency received by students using Saxon Mathematics speaks highly for the program.
Elementary math teacher
John Saxon was the ‘George Patton’ in the Math Wars with his frontal attack against the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and the failed belief system they put on mathematics instruction.
John Saxon was a visionary. He believed that students could more readily master math concepts through daily review, rather than by just memorizing them for a good test grade. Having taught high school mathematics using John’s math books for more than a decade, I can assure you that is exactly what happened in my math classes. Our ACT math scores exceeded the national average for years and we had more than 98 percent of our students enrolled in the more advanced math classes.
Retired high school Saxon Math teacher and author, Using John Saxon’s Math Books—How Homeschool Parents Can Successfully Use Them and Save Money!