Not on the Same Page
Some Educators Say Saxon Math Books Are Great Teaching Tools, but Many School Systems Refuse to Use Them

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 19, 2001; Page A09

MAYWOOD, Calif. -- Edna Medinilla, a second-grade teacher in this Hispanic neighborhood of eastern Los Angeles County, sent the letter to the school board in February without much hope that anyone would answer, or even care.

She and 47 other teachers at Heliotrope Elementary, a well-kept brown building with aqua trim at 59th and Woodlawn streets, begged to be allowed to use a math program that had brought them surprising success. The lesson folders from Saxon Publishers of Norman, Okla., lacked many of the pictures and other frills of modern textbooks, but they were full of practice exercises that the Heliotrope kids loved.

Last year's state tests showed that the school's first-graders had climbed from the 28th to the 44th percentile using Saxon. Second-graders had jumped from 24th to 42nd. "Saxon math is a program that enables all children to develop a solid foundation in both the academic language of mathematics as well as in the fundamental and high level concepts of math," the teachers wrote.

As teachers, Medinilla said, they were used to being ignored about what they thought was best for their students. Sure enough, the Los Angeles Unified School District board refused to put the Saxon texts on its approved list and backed Superintendent Roy Romer's plan to unify math instruction to ease teacher training and make student transfers less disruptive. "We have to do a massive amount of professional development in math," Romer said.

The programs available to Heliotrope and other city schools were untried, but Los Angeles administrators said they preferred them because they were well organized and in line with state and national standards.

"Saxon math remains an anathema to those people based on a belief structure that inexplicably excludes student performance, student satisfaction, teacher satisfaction and parental satisfaction," said Wayne Bishop, professor of mathematics and computer science at California State University at Los Angeles.

This is a very old problem in American education, and John Saxon, five years after his death from complications of congestive heart failure, can still inspire the passions of teachers and parents who think results should count. As Saxon's textbook company prospers, with sales increasing 30 percent a year, his ghost haunts many school districts like Los Angeles' that find the success of a program in actual classrooms a difficult concept to factor into their textbook decisions.

Data on classroom results make many policymakers uneasy, because even popular approaches like Saxon, which emphasizes practice and regular review of key concepts, don't work everywhere. And the school board and textbook committee members who make the final decisions are rarely trained in the nuances of educational research.

"You have to keep in mind that the education system has existed for a long time without an emphasis on results . . . and it is going to take a while to overturn that culture," said Craig Jerald, senior policy analyst for the Washington-based Education Trust. "We have to be more empirically driven and not discount schools that are getting results just because we don't like how they are doing it."

Such distinctions were meaningless to Saxon, a former Air Force officer, when he started writing a math textbook on his dining room table in 1980. He just thought he knew how to solve the problems of slow learners like himself -- he earned a solid D the first time he took calculus. His only employee at the beginning was a bright 16-year-old junior at Norman High School, Frank Wang, who needed a summer job.

Saxon scrounged $80,000 from savings, his mother's will and a second mortgage on his house and went looking for customers. He was confrontational from the start, his advertisements fierce assaults on the mindlessness of big, fat, loosely written mainstream textbooks. A few conservative publications like the National Review gave him some publicity, and sales grew.

The books seemed to do best in inner-city and rural schools, where teachers and students liked his straightforward approach, full of word problems and frequent practice of skills learned in previous weeks. Members of the senior class at Window Rock High on the Navajo Indian Reservation in Arizona were so pleased with their improved scores that they invited Saxon to address their graduation. He sold $600,000 worth of textbooks to the Dallas public schools in the early 1980s, and scores went up there. But as happened often, administrators who viewed his approach as too simple-minded managed eventually to get rid of the books.

When Saxon died in 1996, Wang, his former summer employee, had already been installed as president of the firm. Now 36, Wang has a doctorate in mathematics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a much friendlier approach to critics. He serves on government study panels and is often invited to conferences on improving math education. But "you can usually tell where I am sitting on a committee, because I am often the one that nobody is sitting next to," he said.

The company is owned by Saxon's heirs and has annual sales approaching $100 million. Wang estimated that about 25,000 schools use some Saxon materials. The company also offers a physics text and a phonics series written by Lorna Simmons, a Texas version of Saxon who wrote her first book at home after helping her son learn to read.

In the Washington area, Saxon materials are used in some schools of Fairfax County, the District and the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington. Debbie Ward, the math resource teacher at Clark Elementary School in Northwest Washington, said the Saxon format "teaches students how to think . . . [but] older teachers have a problem using Saxon," because instructors must follow a script.

Karen Jones-Budd, a parent and a member of the Fairfax County math curriculum advisory committee, said Saxon "empowers the children by allowing them to master the fundamentals of math."

That has not been enough to win approval in Los Angeles. The state school board added Saxon to its list of approved texts, but Los Angeles officials said they preferred some new series by mainstream publishers, even if the curriculums had no classroom track record.

Ray Fisher, principal at Heliotrope, said the schools in his area decided to use the same non-Saxon textbook so that their many transient students "would not lose valuable instructional time changing from one math program to another whenever they changed schools."

Medinilla said this makes little sense to her. The new books "are very chapter oriented," she said. "They never go back and review."

Teachers had to work harder with the Saxon materials, she said, but the results were worth it. Such decisions, she said, "should be left to the teachers in the schools. They are the ones that know what is best for their kids."

© 2001 The Washington Post Company