Having just finished reading the Saxon ad in the March MATHEMATICS TEACHER, I wonder how Jack Price managed to show the restraint he did in his now-infamous exchanges with Mr. Saxon. The errors, lies, distortions, and half-truths that permeate this latest missive from Planet Saxon only further my belief that he is both incredibly ignorant and enormously self-serving. Indeed, the more he claims to be solely concerned with students, the obvious it becomes that he is primarily concerned with self-aggrandizement.
First, according to Saxon, the new math was created in the seventies. This will no doubt come as a shock to those of us who are actually familiar with the history of the new math. Did we hallucinate the late '50's and early '60's? When, exactly, was SMSG in operation? Well, facts are for scholars, I suppose.
Next, Mr. Saxon informs us that if you "read the Standards carefully you will find that the goals are poorly stated and that the methods to be used to reach these nebulous goals are emphasized. We are to concentrate on using technology, reduce the emphasis on paper and pencil skills, especially long division, and concentrate on cooperative learning." Well, what exactly is the problem here? Perhaps if the goals had been stated more categorically, Mr. Saxon would be complaining that they are too rigid. Instead of acknowledging the spirit of the Standards, which were presented as a set of guidelines and suggestions rather than as unalterable dogma, Mr. Saxon finds reason to argue with the very flexibility in the Standards that I suspect were intended to depart from the new math of which Mr. Saxon is so critical. Seems like the NCTM is damned regardless of its intentions.
It is difficult to know whether to laugh or cry at Mr. Saxon's contention that the long division algorithm is "a great game to teach the relationships of numbers." After describing the 'guess and check' flavor of the algorithm, he states, "The answer is not all that important. Paper and pencil work with numbers is important because it enhances understanding of basic number concepts, and this understanding is what leads to successful problem solving. Why should this most important teaching tool be de-emphasized? It makes no sense."
In fact, what makes no sense is how Mr. Saxon can continue to contradict himself without blushing. THE ANSWER IS NOT ALL THAT IMPORTANT? I must have misread the Saxon books I've looked at, misheard the advocates of the Saxon approach, and misunderstood his repeated calling for testing and measurement of results. Now, suddenly, we have Mr. Saxon as the champion of play and experimentation? Somehow, in the context of his call for pencil and paper work and his praise of long division, I am not convinced.
Equally unsound are Mr. Saxon's attacks on cooperative learning and technology. Apparently, he is as ignorant of the research on calculator use and group work as he is of the history of mathematics education reform. He continues to claim that calculator use weakens students' problem ability, though he cites nothing but vague, semi-anecdotal evidence. Similarly, his story about the girl in Norman, OK who "got points in math class for being nice" reveals Mr. Saxon's utter misunderstanding of what cooperative learning and group work is about. In fact, the story illustrates that what is valued in some classroom cultures is a polite form of intellectual discourse that clearly neither Mr. Saxon nor I were raised on.
Mr. Saxon concludes by inviting teachers and math supervisors to call his company to get the names of schools in their states that have used Saxon math. The teachers will be glad to speak of students' success, he tells us. I suggest that after anyone does so, they contact me for the name of a school district in southeastern Michigan that recently decided to drop the Saxon materials entirely due to the general dissatisfaction of students, teachers, parents, and administrators with the results of several years' use of his textbooks. Indeed, the 6th grade teachers in the district are the only ones who were unaffected by this change, since they had refused across the board to use the Saxon books. Somehow, I don't imagine that those of you from Michigan who call Saxon Publishers will be given the name of this or any other unhappy district.
To be fair, I don't think the Saxon books are utterly without merit. However, I find what positive things they offer to be present in other, far more innovative and well-thought out teaching materials, materials that generally are free of many of the deficiencies of the Saxon books: overkill, lack of visual appeal (or appeal to any alternate learning styles), emphasis on procedures, and many others. I am particularly amazed by Mr Saxon's contention that his "math books meet the goals of the NCTM STANDARDS better than the books of any other publisher because we concentrate on the end result rather than on the process." This claim conflicts rather glaringly with the earlier statement about long division; it also tips Mr. Saxon's hand most assuredly. For he indicates here that he is guilty of that most fundamental of errors: believing that the ends justify the means. Being a poor student of history, Mr. Saxon has obviously failed to notice that it is almost without exception the case that the means determine the ends. Many of the most well-intentioned revolutions have failed not because they did not topple the status quo, but because those who triumphed lost touch with their original goals. They were so transformed by the inhumane means they employed to gain power that they were no longer interested in the same ends that first sparked their revolutionary fervor. In the case of the Saxon books, I'm afraid that we can't have it both ways. Aside from the doubtful nature of Mr. Saxon's criteria for success, he has committed himself to the notion that his materials are the best at meeting goals that he generally disavows, and he further claims to be doing so by concentrating on results alone, even though the NCTM STANDARDS are highly process-oriented. If the Saxon approach to mathematics pedagogy is as muddled as the logic their creator employs in his latest ad, I fear for the education of those students who are subjected to his texts.