Saxon math: practice, practice

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

You'd be hard pressed to find anyone neutral about Saxon Math. For many recent graduates of teacher education programs, it's the incarnation of "drill and kill" - devoutly to be avoided.

But don't tell that to parents storming school boards and state legislatures to get Saxon texts into schools. They're still wondering why their eighth-graders can't figure 10 percent of 100 without the aid of a calculator, and are convinced Saxon will get classrooms back to basics - or sanity.

The heart of the Saxon approach is the conviction that understanding mathematics is a skill that can be learned through practice. You'll find problems in a Saxon textbook, and lots of them. Students are urged to work each problem quickly and accurately. The curriculum, used in many US schools, is viewed as out of step with current reform plans that stress group work and unconventional approaches to problem solving.

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A mind for math

For Saxon president Frank Wang, getting good at mathematics was the answer to a personal crisis. In 1970, a doctor and school officials came to the conclusion that he had "neurological impairment" and could not be educated. This diagnosis was a great blow to his parents, recent Chinese immigrants to the US.

Wang had his own solution: He noticed that what counted for intelligent in his school was an ability to do mathematics. This was the key to convincing school officials that he had a mind worth educating, he reasoned.

"I didn't want to live out this prophecy," he says. "I really wanted to prove to the doctors that I had intellectual capacity. And getting good in mathematics looked like the way to do it."

He began by studying past New York State Regents exams in mathematics - quietly, on his own time, one question at a time. It was tough at first, but he just continued working problems until he understood the principle, then moved on to another topic.

Finally, he told his eighth-grade algebra teacher that he already knew all the material in the course. The teacher sent him to the principal, who sat him down with an old Regent's exam (he'd already studied) to test the boast. Wang scored a 96.

'It just came to me'

"He asked me how I had learned all of this. I shrugged my shoulders and said, 'I don't know. It just came to me.' I outright lied, but it was such a delicious feeling. All of a sudden people's thoughts of me changed from a disabled child to someone with potential," he says.

Wang met Saxon founder John Saxon after his family moved to Norman, Okla., where his father took up a position as professor of mathematics at the university. Saxon needed a research assistant, and 16-year-old Wang volunteered.

"He just struck me as a very eccentric fellow, but someone with a very strong and powerful sense of mission. He had very grandiose plans at that time. He thought that he had a better way of teaching mathematics, and the world should know about it," says Wang.

Saxon, once dubbed "the angry man of mathematics," was a retired Air Force pilot who flew 55 missions in Korea and later taught electrical engineering at the US Air Force Academy. Brash, outspoken, and never one to dodge a fight, he started his own publishing company to challenge the math orthodoxy of the day.

Smaller is better

Saxon's concern wasn't that math books were too full of pictures, chatter, and not enough problem-solving. (That came later.) In the early 1980s, Saxon argued that children should not be expected to learn math in big thematic chapters. He argued that math needed to be taught in smaller increments, with lots of practice and reviewing.

It turns out, that's exactly how Wang had taught himself mathematics. In the end, the youngster hired to punch papers and do errands contributed so much to the book that Saxon acknowledged him in the preface - and later invited him to take over his company.

"The Saxon pedagogy was incremental development: Teach in small pieces, continual review of those increments, and frequent cumulative testing. There would be no asking: Is this going to be on the test? Every Saxon test was cumulative, and every test gave kids a chance to redeem themselves," Wang says.

In 1992, Saxon offered to donate his program free to seven Oklahoma City elementary schools. A district follow-up found Saxon students outscored a control group of non-Saxon students in every math category on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. Asked to cite weaknesses of the plan, some teachers said that lessons were too time-consuming.

Much of the evidence in support of the Saxon method is anecdotal, but compelling enough to have forged a strong following among some school administrators and parent groups.

Test scores at Falconer Elementary School in Chicago, for instance, went up so dramatically that the central office suspected its students were cheating. Students retook the test and scored at the same level. (76.9 percent of its third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders scored at or above national norms on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. Prior to the use of Saxon only about a third scored at that level.) Another example: Saxon students at Riviera Elementary School in Kelseyville, Calif., one of the state's poorest districts, now outscore students in affluent Laguna Beach schools.

Behind the wheel

John Saxon was one of the first to oppose the recommendation of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics to integrate calculators into math classes. The 1989 NCTM standards that urged students to "construct their own understanding" gave Saxon textbooks a new target.

"John Saxon used to say that understanding more often than not follows doing rather than precedes it," Wang says. "If I'm going to teach you how to drive, I don't lecture you on the theory of the internal-combustion engine. I get you behind the wheel of the car and drive around the block."

He adds: "We're not saying we're against critical thinking. But we feel that creativity comes from a well-prepared mind. What we want to give every child in America is the ability to work to develop a well-prepared mind."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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