The Joy of Saxon Math

Homeschoolers as a group do better than public school students do, but when adjusted for socio-economic status, do less well in math than expected. Direct Instruction works for increasing math success. Saxon math is a Direct Instruction program. Because of its scripted nature, Saxon math is easier to implement in the homeschool than some other, popular programs, especially when many homeschooling mothers are not confident about their own math skills.

saxonkSaxon math is a complete K-12 program. Grades K – 3 are written very differently from the rest of the program. They’re teacher intensive, highly scripted, and incorporate lots of manipulatives–hallmarks of high-quality direct instruction math programs. Saxon 5/4 through Calculus (3rd edition) is written to the student, allowing students with good verbal skills (like most homeschoolers) to work independently.

Saxon math works. It’s been around in the homeschool community for many years, and has been the subject of efficacy research since 2005, including a randomized, controlled trial. Saxon has its critics, and they are fierce.

One of the main critiques of Saxon math is that outside of the K-3 program, there is no instructor edition. Instead, there is a student text, solutions manual, and a test and worksheet set. With less instructor support, parents who are less confident in math might not be able to help their student if they don’t understand the instructions in the textbook.

saxonA frequent complaint is that there are less challenging word problems in Saxon math. Part of that is the nature of direct instruction: “the optimal success rate for fostering student achievement appears to be about 80 percent.” (Rosenshine, 2012) So yes, the word problems will seem easier.

This is in stark contrast to something like Art of Problem Solving, whose entire raison d’être is to have students grapple with perhaps 10 difficult problems per week. Many parents ameliorate this issue with Saxon math by adding in something like Singapore Math Challenging Word Problems.

However, given that Saxon math has ~40 practice problems and ~50-100 drill problems daily, students quickly run out of time to add in more math. Many parents find their students working slowly because they haven’t mastered the material to automaticity, and so they let their students skip problems, but that runs counter to the delicately scaffolded program in Saxon math.

However, perhaps the main reason that conventionally trained math teachers typically dislike Saxon math is that “only about ten percent of each lesson is new material.” (Englemann, 2007) This means that 90% of the lesson is review from prior lessons. The interleaved, interval-spaced review means students solve problems without explicit conceptual organization. While this is fantastic for making it stick (Taylor and Rohrer, 2010), it feels more difficult. A skilled teacher can assist with knowledge organizers, but without an instructor’s edition, parents might not be able to help students “sort” the concepts mentally.

Given all these critiques, I am still a fan of Saxon math. While I appreciate concept mapping as much as the next person, what I’m most concerned with is, “Can my daughter do math, efficiently and on grade level?” Saxon ensures that her math gets done right.

It’s not easy to transition from a math exposure curriculum, where you study a concept annually and then have brief end-of-chapter reviews. The first day of Saxon math, my daughter spent 45 minutes doing 100 single-digit addition problems because she hadn’t learned them to automaticity. That was in addition to the actual lesson set, which took another 45 minutes. It took her 9 months to master the daily drills enough to get them done in 10 minutes. But she made a year’s worth of progress in the first 5 months.

Enabling all children to be on grade level, to be proficient, is what Direct Instruction curricula do best, and why I highly recommend Saxon math to the vast majority of homeschooling parents.