Illustrations: Quick Honey

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

TThis 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 Placement calculus and statistics in pursuit of some college credits.

“The expectation is that we will have TI-83 calculators — that’s just what the curriculum demands.”

Other students put games on their calculators, or decorated the lids with stickers or the colorful tinfoil from sticks of 5 Gum, or filled their calculator with hints to help them on tests, or took out the batteries in the back and used the empty space to hide drugs. (Okay, the last one was a rumor.) But I only remember using the text features to send messages to friends during class.

I grew up in a very good school district in an affluent central Pennsylvania suburb, the kind of place where a kid who lost their expensive calculator typically didn’t have to worry about asking their parents to replace it. Class anxiety seemed practically nonexistent, except for my own, which I muted as much as possible. And if I ever left my calculator at home, I could always borrow one from the school. Sometimes it would even be a model nicer than the one I had.

Texas Instruments released its first graphing calculator, the TI-81, to the public in 1990. Designed for use in pre-algebra and algebra courses, it was superseded by other Texas Instruments models with varying shades of complexity but these calculators remained virtually untouched aesthetically. Today, Texas Instruments still sells a dozen or so different calculator models intended for different kinds of students, ranging from the TI-73 and TI-73 Explorer for middle school classes to the TI-Nspire CX and TI-Nspire CX CAS ($149), an almost smartphone-like calculator with more processing power. But the most popular calculators, teachers tell me, include the TI-83 Plus ($94), launched in 1999; the TI-84 Plus ($118), launched in 2004; the very similar TI-84 Plus Silver Edition, also launched in 2004; and the TI-89 Titanium ($128).

Thompson, like many teachers, works in a district where it’s a financial impossibility to ask students and their parents to shell out $100 for a new calculator. (Graphing calculators of any brand are recommended at Thompson’s school, and they are essential for the curriculum.) So the onus falls on him and other teachers, who rely on their teacher salaries — Thompson makes $62,000 a year — to fill in the gaps. At first, Thompson bought cheaper calculators: four-function, $3 calculators. This, he quickly realized, would be insufficient. “A lot of students were angry and actually left the class and went to the classroom of the more experienced teacher next to me and asked to borrow her calculators,” he told me.

The bulky, rectangular Texas Instruments calculators act more like mini-handheld computers than basic calculators, plotting graphs and solving complex functions. Seeing expressions, formulas, and graphs on-screen is integral for students in geometry, calculus, physics, statistics, business, and finance classes. They provide students access to more advanced features, letting them do all the calculations of a scientific calculator, as well as graph equations and make function tables. Giving a child a four-function calculator —allowing for only addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division— would leave them woefully underprepared for the requirements of more advanced math and science classes.

It’s not practical or even allowable for students to turn to more modern and possibly more accessible technology — like laptops or smartphones — to fill the gaps. “iPhones do too much,” Thompson told me. “There’s an app you can get where you can just take a picture of a problem, and the app will show you the steps to solve it. For that reason, I really can’t let them use cellphones on tests. Too many students will cheat. So I need to buy graphing calculators, and they need to be nice ones.”

To understand why teachers like Thompson find themselves in this position — and why families across the country are still paying $100 or more for a piece of prohibitively expensive technology that barely seemed to have been updated in decades — one must understand Texas Instruments and its incumbency in the graphing calculator market, and how the U.S. education system has become addicted to Texas Instruments, which has a staggering, monopolistic hold over high school math.

TTexas Instruments didn’t set out to be a calculator giant. In 1930, two scientists, John Clarence Karcher and Eugene McDermott, founded the oil and gas company Geophysical Service Inc. (GSI) in Texas. A decade later, GSI started making defense electronics, and in 1951, Texas Instruments was spun off to build seismographs for oil explorations. In the 1960s, the president of Texas Instruments, Pat Haggerty, directed a team to work on a handheld calculator project, including lab director Jack Kilby, who had invented the integrated circuit, a small chip that can serve as a microprocessor or computer memory in different devices. (He would share the 2000 Nobel Prize in physics for his work on the integrated circuit.) Kilby, along with two colleagues, created a battery-powered calculator that could fit six-digit numbers on its display and do basic math. They code-named the 1967 calculator the Cal-Tech. It weighed about three pounds and measured about 4.25 x 6.15 x 1.75 inches. Today, according to the company’s website, the vast majority of Texas Instruments’ revenue comes processors that originated in the Cal-Tech.

While calculators make up 3% or less of Texas Instruments’ overall revenue, they are still a lucrative product. Texas Instruments includes its calculators in the “other” section of its financial reports, making it hard to determine exactly how much money Texas Instruments is making from the calculators, but according to the company’s 2018 annual report, this category generated $1.43 billion in revenue last year. “Compared to other electronics this day and age, there is very little content,” analyst Blayne Curtis told the Washington Post in 2014, referring to the TI-84 Plus. “Plastic case, small black-and-white screen, two semiconductor chips. The batteries are even not rechargeable like a cellphone.” Curtis told the Post that he estimated a TI-84 Plus costs $15 to $20 to make and likely has a profit margin of over 50% for Texas Instruments.

This profit margin is likely a conservative estimate, a former employee in Texas Instruments’ calculator division told me. “As a former teacher, I was appalled at the pricing, not only for educators but for the families who were forced to pay inflated prices for the damn things,” she told me. “The margin is incredible. I can’t verify the exact numbers, but the margin was like 85% 90%.” In comparison, PC manufacturers like HP, Lenovo, Dell, Asus, and Acer have profit margins below 3%. (Texas Instruments did not return a request for comment for this story.)

The U.S. education system has become addicted to Texas Instruments, which has a staggering, monopolistic hold over high school math.

Texas Instruments was not the first to go to market with its commercially viable graphing calculators — Casio preceded it. But Texas Instruments was able to capitalize on its relationship with the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics to ensure its calculators ended up in classrooms across the country. In 1980, the council recommended that “mathematics programs [should] take full advantage of calculators… at all grade levels.” Throughout the decade, Texas Instruments worked closely with the council to develop its first calculator in hopes of becoming the educational standard.

It started with Connecticut. In 1986, the state became the first to require a graphing calculator on state-mandated exams. The Connecticut School Board argued that calculators would let students solve more challenging problems. In 1988, Chicago Public Schools gave a free calculator to every student, beginning in the fourth grade. New York followed suit in 1991 when he state first allowed calculators for its Regents exams; by 1992, it required them. Then the College Board let students use calculators on Advanced Placement exams, specifically calculus, in 1983, then reversed its policy a year later, explaining that it was banning calculators because it wasn’t fair to students who didn’t have them. But a decade later, it mandated calculators on the tests. In 1994, it allowed calculators to be used for the SAT as well. Teachers I spoke to said that some major textbooks feature illustrations of Texas Instruments–series calculators alongside the text, so students can use their Texas Instruments calculator with the lesson plan, emphasizing how deeply interwoven Texas Instruments remains with the educational hegemony.

While Eli Luberoff studied math and physics at Yale, he paid his way through college by tutoring kids in the wealthy enclave of Westport, Connecticut. He also volunteered in the far less affluent New Haven public schools. “I was astounded by the fact that students were still forced to buy graphing calculators, and that the prices hadn’t gone down at all,” he told me. “That was a huge surprise to me, that TI 83 and 84 was the assumed default for every student, and that they still cost over a hundred bucks. It was an easily digestible cost for my Westport students, but it was prohibitive for my kids in New Haven.” In 2012, he launched Desmos, a San Francisco–based company that offers a free online version of TI’s graphing calculator. One of his dreams is for students to be able to access Desmos’ computing technology for all major tests.

Texas Instruments has many resources at its disposal to maintain its stronghold over school curriculums. For years, the company’s lobbying expenses have remained consistent, spending about $2 million a year on issues such as consumer product safety, defense spending, and high-skilled worker visas, along with education. Teachers told me that Texas Instruments provides services for free to the College Board, which administers AP tests and the SAT. It also has a group called Teachers Teaching for Technology (T3), which educates teachers on how to use its calculators. T3 also runs a hotline called 1-800-TI-CARES, hosts a yearly conference, and maintains a large presence at events like conferences for the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics.

Luberoff has made progress working with textbook publishers like McGraw-Hill and Pearson, as well as with states that have mandatory testing. “A lot of high-stakes assessments students take are mandated to be digital, so state-level tests and exams must be delivered on computers. Desmos is now built into a huge fraction of those,” he told me. “You go in on test day, you open the calculator, and it’s basically the same one students can practice on for free. It’s enormous for equity.”

You might think the man who seemingly wants to abolish a monopolistic calculator company would have some hatred in his heart for Texas Instruments, but Luberoff seems sympathetic to their plight. “It’s a classic innovator’s dilemma,” he said. “They make so much money selling these devices… Their job to their shareholders is to keep selling these calculators for as much as they can and for as long as they can.”

SSome students who can’t afford a calculator for math class take matters into their own hands. Thirty-year-old Trey grew up in suburban Georgia and went to a private high school in the early 2000s. His teachers worked at a school with both middle-class students and students living below the poverty line. “Getting TI calculators for any of our classes — it was well-known that it was a sensitive subject. It was never just like, ‘Buy some calculators, you’ll need it by the first day,’ knowing that half the class would not have them,” Trey told me. “That was pretty much universal. Throughout my high school career, half the class wouldn’t have them. You’re always sharing with people.”

His teachers had a suggestion for Trey and his classmates who couldn’t shell out $100 for a calculator. “My tenth-grade teacher gave us some advice: She said, ‘Go to pawn shops.’ They’re like $20 or $30 there. I got all of mine from pawn shops,” he says. “It was this cycle of going to the pawn shop to buy a $20 calculator, getting it stolen at school, and then going back to the pawn shop and buying back your calculator again.”

As GoFundMe has become a platform for people to fundraise for things like medical expenses, which in a fairer society would perhaps be covered by a stronger social safety net, DonorsChoose has emerged as a nonprofit organization for teachers to fundraise for all kinds of classroom supplies — including graphing calculators. Data provided by DonorsChoose public relations shows that teachers first begin requesting graphing calculators on DonorsChoose in 2005, five years after a history teacher founder the site.

Currently, DonorsChoose has 2,002 live projects requesting TI-83 and TI-84 graphing calculators. Overall, teachers have created a total of 34,578 projects on the website requesting TI-83 and TI-84 graphing calculators. Of those projects, 26,855 were fully funded, totaling $17,938,242 in donations. The DonorsChoose data that Dalmaine sent me shows the number of teacher-created projects specifically requesting graphing calculators doubled from 2008 to 2009; in 2008, teachers created 594 projects requesting Texas Instruments graphing calculators; in 2009, that number sharply rose to 1,089 and has risen every year since.

Texas Instruments’ unchanging graphing calculator technology is a benefit to teachers in at least one way. For teachers who decide not to raise money to buy new calculators, they can simply collect old ones from friends who last used theirs five, 10, or 15 years ago. Amy Perfetti currently teaches at a charter high school in Philadelphia and previously taught AP calculus at a public high school in Boston. There, her students were required to buy their own graphing calculators, but the reality is that few could afford them. Perfetti was on a $600 stipend as part of a graduate program — she had free rent and a free degree but no salary, and she couldn’t afford to buy the calculators herself. “I wasn’t going to punish them because of their financial inability to get a calculator, but I knew they still needed them,” she told me. “So I spent the entire first semester soliciting donations wherever I could — not of money, but of unused graphing calculators that my high school and college classmates were forced to purchase at one time but no longer used.”

“It was this cycle of going to the pawn shop to buy a $20 calculator, getting it stolen at school, and then going back to the pawn shop and buying back your calculator again.”

Using Facebook and Twitter, as well as her network of friends and colleagues, Perfetti asked for calculator donations, offering to pay the cost of shipping or physically picking up any that were close to her in Boston. Overall, she ended up with 20 calculators. “I only [collected calculators] the one time with the intent of reusing the calculators, but I moved states and took the calculators with me,” she told me. “My algebra students don’t have a use for them now, but my hope is that if I end up teaching a pre-calc or calc class again, they would be available for use for my students, who are in a similar situation as my former students were in Boston, financially speaking. I am unsure what the AP calc class did for calculators the year after I left.”

Steven Thompson, the math teacher in Baltimore, says he’ll probably do the same. “Another new math teacher in my building has 10 T1-83 calculators that her students just share. I think some were given to her by friends — I think one she took from her fiancé,” he told me. “Stuff like that. People just scrounge around and do what they have to do.”

But ultimately, he says, things need to change systemically; it’s not sustainable for teachers to delve into their own checking accounts or rely on friends for borrowed old calculators. “The bottom line is that we need to invest a lot more money in education. Education is underfunded in a million different ways. To change that, the school district won’t just find the money themselves,” he said. “I think what really needs to happen is teachers need to get organized and fight for funding. The teachers in Chicago just went on strike. I think that’s the only thing that’s really going to change this. We live in a very rich country, but the money we could use for that is spent on other things. It’s something that needs to change.”

i’m a freelance writer and editor. you can also read me in places like the new york times and vanity fair.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store