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Interview with Nakonia Hayes, biographer of John Saxon, Math Warrior

Nakonia (Niki) Hayes was a K-12 teacher, counselor, and principal. She also worked 17 years outside of teaching, mainly in journalism. She now operates a tutoring academy in Waco, Texas, providing help in math, reading, and writing.

John Saxon,  Math Warrior
----(John Saxon)

In 2008 Niki started work on the biography of one of America’s great teachers, John Saxon. Publishers said no one wanted to read a story about a math teacher, so she published it herself. Her mission is to have John Saxon honored for his superior teaching methods and his continued record of success with students today. Everyone who cares about American K-12 education should join her mission.

When free to choose, people choose Saxon. More than one million homeschoolers use Saxon textbooks.


Q: Did you ever meet John Saxon?

A: No, I never had the privilege. He died in 1996 before I fully comprehended his genius in teaching the fundamentals and the beauty of mathematics.

Q: How did you first become aware of his work?

A: Saxon Math was used in grades K-12 on the Spokane Indian Reservation where I was hired in 1991 to teach math in grades 6-12. The books were powerful in their simplicity. Then as a Seattle principal, I asked the teachers to consider Saxon because the 4th grade state test scores were so low. They adopted the program and scores climbed from a 66% to 89% passing rate in three years.

Q: You went on to write a 300-page biography. That must have been a labor of love.

A: It didn’t start out that way. I was just tired of defending Saxon Math to math education elites. Once I learned that a West Point graduate and veteran of three wars had successfully taken on the math establishment’s destructive ideas in a real David-against-Goliath scenario, I was driven to tell his complete story. The elites had declared war on him as an “outsider” and he had fought back—hard—to their stunned surprise.

Q: How long did you spend writing the book?

A: Almost two years, from August 2008 through May 2010. I often worked 6-8 hours per day, five days a week, typing notes on more than 2000 newspaper clippings and magazine articles, and watching about 20 home videos and DVDs and CDs of media interviews. I interviewed his four children and many of his work colleagues.

Q: John Saxon had a most remarkable life, with almost 30 years in the Air Force and another 20 as a successful teacher, writer and publisher of textbooks. Tell us your favorite memories of John.

A: His fourth airplane crash (1953) almost killed him. Amazed he had lived through another crash, he decided that perhaps God had something special planned for him. He said he hadn’t been much of a “spiritual” man up to that point. Twenty years later, he was fighting a war against America’s math education establishment. Evidently, he felt, he had been trained as a warrior for a reason.

I think of his eldest child, Johnny, defining his father as a “Renaissance Man” who loved great poetry, ancient history, art, and who spoke French fluently. He was a colorful, creative thinker with the clarity of common sense. His enemies made the mistake of treating him as a buffoon.

Q: Explain the biggest difference between Saxon Math and Reform Math.

A: Saxon is user-friendly for students and adults of any age, gender, race, or intelligence. Saxon Math is direct instruction with adult leadership. Results matter. Calculators are not allowed before Algebra1 for daily use. No parent group has ever protested against Saxon Math.

Reform Math puts a wedge between children and parents with convoluted word problems and unfamiliar methods that most parents can’t understand. It’s about “process,” not results, as children supposedly become their own teachers. Calculators are promoted from K-12. Countless protests by parents have been conducted against Reform Math nationwide for two decades

Q:. My impression is that Reform Math, the thing that John battled against 25 years ago is still just as big a problem in the schools today as it was then. What’s your take?

A: It’s worse. Today, the continuing seepage from 50 years of Reform Math ideology has taken control of publishers and teacher training programs.

Q:. Common Core seems to carry forward all the bad ideas contained in Reform Math. Is that a fair statement?

A: Yes. Students may be prepared for community college but certainly not for STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) college programs. This has been stated as a fact by a Core leader, Jason Zimba, who helped write the math standards.

Q: How do we get rid of this inferior stuff?

A: First, publicity is needed, most likely through social media since mass-media reporters are like so many Americans—math phobic—and avoid talking about it. Second, parents and teachers need to know there’s an alternative to Common Core’s weak math instruction, and they must fight for its use. John Saxon proved repeatedly that student scores on state and college board tests increased with his program. That opens many more career opportunities for America’s children.

Q: Talk about where we are today. Can public schools use Saxon Math?

A: Saxon Math is available, K-12, from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) Publishers. Saxon is a favorite of private and charter schools as well as smaller districts, but the most notable group using Saxon is homeschoolers. (The present K-8 series is still solid Saxon, not rewritten to align with Common Core. But anyone looking at Algebra 1 or Algebra 2 texts should seek used second or third editions, 2003 and earlier. Those are also still available from the present publisher, but their fourth edition is a “development house” creation by HMH and should be avoided.)

Q: If you could wave a magic wand, what do you want to happen with John Saxon’s Story?

A: I want a publisher to reprint and promote the book to emblazon John Saxon’s name across the national memory and to help parents make the best decisions, especially since we are facing Common Core’s potential math debacle. All proceeds go to West Point’s Department of Mathematical Sciences to honor Lt.Col. John Saxon for what he called his “good war” for America’s children.

Q: Final thoughts?

A: John Saxon’s biography became a reality because of his four children. They trusted me to write an honest story; then they rescued me by helping pay for the printing of the book when I couldn’t find a publisher. That has allowed me to work for his recognition as the 20th century hero in math education. God knows we desperately need heroes. John’s legacy proves that he is one, both as a decorated combat pilot and as a teacher and publisher.


QED: There’s really no comparison. Saxon Math teaches math. Reform Math curricula teach confusion. If you want to help k-12 education in our country, demand Saxon for your children, and for everyone else’s children.



Good video of John Saxon being interviewed on television circa 1990 (same video as at top of page).

Main John Saxon website (created by Niki Hayes):

“John Saxon's Story, a genius of common sense in math education” The biography by Niki Hayes on Amazon:

“Why we use Saxon Math in our Homeschool” (5:20 minutes)

“John Saxon: Greatest American Educator”— a 4-minute video by Bruce Deitrick Price.


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