Saxon math: practice, practice
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.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
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.
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.