My 5 Favorite Curriculums for K-12: #1 Saxon Math

Tim Ihms Education, Mathematics, Uncategorized

SHARE THIS STORY: Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on Google+

My 5 Favorite Curriculums for K-12: #1 Saxon Math

Way, way back in my twelfth year of teaching, I was given my request of beginning a multi-grade classroom at the last moment, after the school year had ended, in the large public school district, I worked for at the time. This allowed me to teach a multi-grade class of fourth through sixth-grade students with special education students integrated into the class. Wanting to individualize the math program and not being convinced the math program the district was using was the best to individualize with, I found copies of two other math publishers in district storage. I spent the summer picking and choosing the best each book had to offer in teaching the different concepts of math to be taught that year for each grade. Then I created a checklist for the year for students to progress through.

Everything was charted out by concept, page and book. Reviews and tests were added. Each student would bring one of the three math books with their check-sheet that had what the student had to read from the book and prove to me he understood the concept. Then the student would perform practice problems on the new concept. Once it was shown the concept was understood, then problems from another book would be used to review past material learned. If a student did not pass the test over the material taught at 80% or better, then the previous lessons would be completed again.

I worked this way with my students, all 30 of them, for one year. Then towards the end of the year, a colleague heard what I was doing with the different textbooks. He asked if I heard about a math program called Saxon math. He heard it was similar to what I was doing, but with only one textbook.

Saxon Math was developed by John Saxon. He has been called the ‘George Patton’ of the math wars. Who knew there were math wars? He rejected the direction modern math was going. With $80,000 raised from savings, a mortgage, and other sources, he developed his first textbook, Algebra 1 in 1981. From there he developed math books from Calculus to fourth grade.

John Saxon developed his unique textbooks because he believed the new math programs would greatly hurt American math education. In his unique books, he believed breaking instruction down into smaller parts would make the math concepts easier to understand.

Later, I left the multi-grade position to begin my own private school. That school was very different; individualized instruction, no lecture, integrated non-labeled special education, multi-grade, with basic Christianity taught. And Saxon Math was used in grades four through twelve. The rest, as they say, is history.

Our small private school of fourth through eighth-grade students would consistently take 12% to 18% of the awards given at the yearly regional math competition representing approximately 30,000 students in the Rocky Mountain region. Our last five years, the high school students earned regional awards for Algebra 1 and usually one other area of math. The school math ACT scores were an average of 26 or more for each of those years.

And no, we did not have attending the best and the brightest dwelling in the Valley of the Sun. We quickly had a wait list of families who had already been through the public and charter schools and felt their kids needed more. Kids who were not successful and who had parents desperate for help.

Though a lot of our success in math goes to the students’ hard work, the teachers’ persistence, the parent’s support, and the individualized daily instruction, Saxon math provided the keystone to our success.

What makes Saxon so different? There is no one part of the Saxon system that makes it or breaks it. It is the system as a whole that works together to consistently create confident and skilled math students with few exceptions.

The student begins each lesson with mental math, where the student mentally solves 8-10 problems he tells his teachers the answers to. Next, the student reads from the book the new skill to be learned. From this reading, the student will have to explain to the teacher his understanding of the material while referencing the examples. Then once the student shows his teacher understanding, 8-12 practice problems are provided to show if the student has a good understanding of the new skill.

After the practice problems have shown the student has a good understanding of the new skill, there are 30 problems that review the previous skills learned. These 30 problems will include 2-4 problems from the day’s new lesson. For our purposes, if a student missed more than four problems the thirty problems had to be repeated. The tests occur usually every five lessons and cover all earlier learned skills up to the five previous lessons. Our students would have to repeat the previous five lessons if more than four of the twenty test questions were missed.

The four reasons I like Saxon Math are:

1) It provides a great system of review of the previous skills learned. The present systems used in most schools of teach and move on is not near as effective.
2) The text is easy enough for most students to read and understand. From the lesson reading, our students have to prove to the teacher their understanding.
3) The mental math aspect supports the student’s basic skills and confidence in performing math.
4) The tests are close enough to each other to provide a good system of accountability for learning.


I grew up in Silver City, New Mexico and went the University of New Mexico, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Geology. After working for the U.S. Geological Survey in remote regions of western New Mexico, I moved to Tucson to attend graduate school at the University of Arizona, earning a Master of Science degree in Hydrogeology. While working as an intern hydrologist for a local county agency, I started doing volunteer work that involved making presentations in schools. At that moment I knew teaching was the path to follow. It must have been a good decision because I’m still on the path after 31 years. My teaching certificates are in math and science and I am a National Board Certified Teacher in Career and Technical Education. I’ve been teaching engineering, science, and math at the same school in downtown Tucson my whole career. I also sponsored my school’s MESA program, which prepares members to enter college and major in a STEM career, for twenty-one years. In addition to full time teaching, I am actively involved in the teacher leadership movement by facilitating National Board candidates, blogging for Stories from School Arizona, serving on the Arizona K12 Center’s TeacherSolutions team, and serving on my school’s literacy council. In January 2017, Raytheon Missile System named me a Leader in Education. During the 2017–18 school year I also served as an Arizona Hope Street Fellow.