Big Calculator: How Texas Instruments Monopolized Math Class
These $100 calculators have been required in classrooms for more than 20 years, as students and teachers still struggle to afford them
This fall, Stephen Thompson began his first year of teaching Algebra 2 and college prep classes to 11th and 12th graders at a public high school in northwest Baltimore. On top of the typical stress of any first-year teaching experience, Thompson realized that along with other out-of-pocket classroom expenses, he would have to buy a pricey piece of classroom equipment: graphing calculators. Specifically, Texas Instruments graphing calculators.
“The students, for the most part, don’t have calculators,” he told me in October. “On a typical day, a lot of students don’t even have a pencil. It’s up to the teacher to provide that stuff. The expectation is that we will have TI-83 calculators — that’s just what the curriculum demands.”
Planned obsolescence is deeply ingrained with most tech companies. Apple introduces a new, sleeker iPhone every year, with improved features, different sizes, more power, and more pixels. But Texas Instruments graphing calculators used by high school students 10 or 20 years ago are essentially the same ones students use today. Bulky and black, with large, colorful push buttons and a low-resolution screen, TI graphing calculators resemble top-of-the-line design from the 1990s and are functionally the same as when Texas Instruments first launched the TI-84 Plus in 2004. Even the price has remained almost the same. When my mom bought my TI-83 Plus calculator for ninth-grade math class in 2006, it cost $90 at our local Staples. Today, that calculator sells for $105 at Office Depot.
I remember feeling a pang of guilt watching my working-class single mom hand over her debit card to the cashier. On the short drive home, I held the calculator in my lap, still in its blister pack. I was 14 years old, and this was the most valuable electronic device I ever owned. I was taking Algebra 2 that year — the advanced class for freshmen at my public high school — and purchasing a graphing calculator felt like an academic rite of passage. I wasn’t a math person, just a good student who’d eventually slog through Advanced…