SOUTH HUNTINGTON, N.Y. — He flunked trigonometry as a boy. But John Saxon presents himself as the savior of math education, delighted to brand the nation's math experts as incompetents.
The "math Establishment"--the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and top state math officials--is to blame for U.S. teen-agers scoring last in international comparisons of numerical skills, Saxon charges.
"It is only in math education where people who are abject failures are called experts," says Saxon, whose back-to-basics math textbooks have been rejected by several states and whose blunt personality leaves even supporters cringing.
"They can point to no success in math education in 30 years and yet they call themselves experts."
Many in the "Establishment" do, indeed, oppose many of Saxon's methods--and they don't much like this former test pilot and junior college teacher turned math textbook publisher, either.
But interviews with teachers around the country make it clear that this math maverick from Oklahoma has tapped into widespread discontent over math education and is causing educators to rethink how the subject should be taught in U.S. classrooms.
Since 1982, Saxon has sold some $20-million worth of his texts to 3,000 schools around the country--from Arizona reservation schools to affluent suburban schools outside Chicago, Minneapolis and metropolitan New York.
And he has done it without the customary sales force most school textbook publishers employ.
Instead, he has run acerbic ads in education trade journals, offered free texts to schools willing to test them, and encouraged his legions of teacher-supporters to help spread his grass-roots math movement.
Saxon's philosophy lies in his fourth grade through high school textbook series that he hopes will banish three decades of "new math" and replace it with a "practice, practice, practice" regimen of basic skills.
Or, as he put it in an interview, "I beat math into the little buggers."
Saxon's latest battleground is this affluent Long Island suburb, where parents, believing that the state-mandated math curriculum was leaving their kids ill-equipped for college math, overcame opposition from state curriculum authorities and won permission to become the first in New York state to test Saxon's approach.
This fall, Saxon's brand of math began a closely watched, three-year trial in two beginning algebra classes at South Huntington's Walt Whitman High School.
But here and elsewhere, it's too early to tell if the Saxon approach will do all it claims: boost test scores, keep students in math longer and make U.S. students world leaders in math skills.
One of the few serious studies, conducted with Pittsburgh students in 1987, found that Saxon yielded no test gains compared to other books. And all students did poorly on problem-solving skills regardless of the texts used.
Saxon is hard to categorize. His texts blend rote math drill and constant repetition of lessons previously learned--similar to the Japanese \o7 kumon\f7 method that helped make that country a math leader.
The Algebra I text, for example, has no chapters, but 132 "lessons," each focusing on a particular skill--graphing inequalities, for example. Students work on 30 or so practice problems. But unlike traditional texts, the vast majority of practice questions deal with previous lessons learned.
It's as if students are reviewing for their math finals from the first day of the school year.
Unlike many math experts, Saxon frowns on students using hand calculators, especially in elementary grades.
And Saxon teachers are expected to act as coaches rather than lecturers, and employ other progressive classroom practices such as cooperative learning.
In sum, Saxon seems to offer a new way to teach the "old math."
As might be expected, leading math educators haven't taken kindly to being told by this prickly outsider that they have been doing it all wrong for decades.
Curriculum officials and some classroom teachers in New York, Minnesota, Texas, California, Idaho and even his home state of Oklahoma insist that Saxon is trying to march mathematics education backwards.
Saxon may teach students how to compute a square root, they say, but his texts neglect problem-solving skills, ignore key areas like probabilities and statistics, and generally fail to connect classroom math to a changing technological world.
"It appears Saxon wants students to perform quick and accurate calculations. He has a behaviorist point of view: learning through constant repeating. The rest of us believe that you build knowledge through prior understanding," said Elizabeth Stage, chairwoman of California's curriculum commission.
"There's no application to anything in real life. Students wind up more like trained monkeys," said Nancy Guldberg, a math teacher at Eden Prairie High School in suburban Minneapolis, which has used the Saxon texts for six years but now is almost certain to drop them because students disliked the texts and test scores languished.