The Story of How a WWII Hero Launched a War on Bad Math Instruction

By Sharon Hillestad

John Saxon had been a scientist during the early days of our country’s space program. Upon his retirement in 1970, he taught algebra at a community college. He was surprised and appalled to find that his students did not know basic arithmetic. They couldn’t add, subtract, multiply, divide, or calculate percentages and fractions with confidence.

Math instruction with the usual “approved” textbooks had become such that it was impossible to successfully get all students proficient in the subject. The top five or ten percent may grasp the more advanced math concepts. The rest of the students…too bad.

Saxon created a curriculum which would teach these foundational math skills and reach all students. It is called Algebra ½ because it is half arithmetic and half algebra. This program presents the math concepts logically and with sufficient drill and review. Students trained with the Saxon method outperformed others trained in the usual math curriculum.

No textbook company would publish the Saxon math program.

Eventually John Saxon borrowed $50,000 and published Algebra ½ himself. The textbook was hugely successful with private schools and homeschoolers. My sons learned math from Algebra ½. Now Saxon math textbooks are available from Kindergarten through Calculus.

John Saxon held three degrees in engineering and was a gifted teacher. He designed math books to be user-friendly and had proved that his program worked before he started selling it. That is not the case with most other textbooks sold to public schools.

Instead, textbook publishers continue to use unproven fads and programs on children. Saxon’s continuing and verified successes were ignored by established math education leaders. There was a raging math war involving Saxon and The National Council of Mathematics Teachers (NCMT).

It was the NCMT that got math textbooks “dumbed down” starting in 1923. This happened after compulsory education to age 16 became law. It was a curiosity to me that my father, with his eighth grade education, had better math skills than his five children, all of whom graduated from highschool. No mystery—he had better training in math.

John Saxon died in 1996. He never agreed with the common belief that only certain people are genetically capable of learning mathematics.

Read more about the math war at