For someone who doesn’t really like math, I have bought too many Texas Instruments calculators in my life—at least four or five, beginning in high school, continuing through college, and finishing up with an improbable stint as a math tutor. I bought one pretty much every two years, as I lost them or they were stolen, which means, at this point, that I’d like all that money back. Here’s something to graph on your TI-83 graphing calculator: If I took that $500 and invested it in a mutual fund in 1988, how much would it have grown by now? A lot, is how much. I don’t need any stinking calculator to tell me that.
This is a roundabout way of saying: Why the eff are we still buying TI-83 calculators? We bought them as high-schoolers, and now we’re gearing up to buy them for our own kids, 20 years later. When I can Google “compound interest” and have the Internet calculate something for me in an instant, for free, why do I need to shell out $140 for a old piece of technology? When computers are small enough to fit in a nose ring, why do kids need to lug around a tool the size of a cookbook? In short, why does Texas Instruments have a monopoly on graphing calculators?
Because they kind of do have a monopoly on graphing calculators. Jack Smith IV, reporting for Mic, writes, “It’s because Texas Instruments, the company that creates [the calculators], has a staggering monopoly in the field of high school mathematics. The American education system is addicted to Texas Instruments […] TI-series calculators have been so prominent for so long, they’ve worked their way into the bloodstream of mathematics instruction in the U.S.” Smith also notes that textbooks produced by Pearson have illustrations of the calculators in their books, and that it is, after all, rather difficult to shift students over to new technologies.
But what really tied us (and ties our kids) to Texas Instruments are standardized tests. You can only bring calculators from a certain approved list into the SATs, for example. I suppose this is to prevent Internet access and cheating—but let me tell you, when I was tutoring, kids managed to program their TI-83s with formulas and extensive notes.
Smith also reports that TI maintains an army of teachers, trained to teach using the TI calculators, who act as “evangelists” for the products and that the company erects massive pavilions at educators’ conferences. Smith writes: “It’s a profitable technological incumbency that is nearly monopolistic. In the 2013–2014 school year, Texas Instruments sold 93% of all graphing calculators in the U.S. The Washington Post estimates that TI is manufacturing the calculators for $15 to $20 and achieving a more than 50% profit margin, making calculators one of the company’s most profitable items.”
It goes without saying that there are cheaper calculators. Casio sells one for $50. One Pennsylvania math teacher told Mic, “I tell kids when they buy graphing calculators, ‘You know what the difference between TI and Casio is? Marketing.'”
So this isn’t such a problem if you can afford the damn calculator. But it is a problem for families who are struggling to meet even basic needs. A big, clunky, outdated, unnecessary (but still somehow the only way teachers are teaching) piece of equipment that students are required to buy for math class and the SATs? I’d be tempted to try to get my kids to make do with a cheaper calculator, thereby making the already challenging aspect of math class just a little more challenging. Smith writes: “The way Texas Instruments works with testing companies, standards boards, complicit teachers and textbook publishers is reinforcing the achievement gap between upper-middle-class students and everyone else.”
Good news, though: There are free apps that are easier to use and gaining momentum in the classroom. Frankly, though, I think I learned math better when I did it by hand, with pencils, on paper. When I taught, I found my students learned better that way too. When the time comes, I’ll be helping out my own kids with the No. 2 pencils and graph paper. If I want them to experience ’80s technology in all its glory, they can pop a cassette in my Sony Walkman.