After Four Decades, Pioneer of Calculator Still Leads K-12 Field

By Andrew Trotter — October 16, 2007 8 min read
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Not all educators agree that the best ways to teach mathematics include giving students electronic calculators. But many do, and their view is reflected in the policies and practices of school districts, textbook publishers, testing companies, and state education agencies.

That adds up to profits for Texas Instruments Inc., the Dallas-based semiconductor manufacturer that invented the hand-held calculator 40 years ago and dominates the school market for the devices today.

The company’s school calculator franchise is protected by a fortress of advantages that its frustrated rivals find hard to penetrate, analysts and educators say. Those include its early lead in the field; its extensive instructional resources and training for teachers; publishers’ inclusion of TI-specific lessons as supplements to major math textbooks; and unmatched success at getting districts to buy its calculators or require children to have them.

“TI’s genius was to recognize that the key to the acceptance of its technology in schools was tying it to the existing curriculum—everything follows from there,” said Elliot Soloway, a University of Michigan education professor who has developed methods of using hand-held computers in science classrooms. “They got well-accepted by math educators.”

Despite its dominance, analysts point to several potential threats to TI’s lead in the school calculator marketplace. The company may be vulnerable on the price front, for example. The tide in math research could turn against calculators. Or the company’s latest generation of new technology, rolled out last month, could fall flat.

A ‘Good Business’

But for now anyway, TI holds, by its own reckoning, 60 percent of the market for the scientific and graphing calculators used in middle school, high school, and university-level education. Melendy Lovett, the president of TI’s educational technology division, said the company sells between 3 and 4 million graphing calculators per year and has nearly 13 million calculators of all kinds currently in use in schools.

Its two main competitors, Casio America Inc. and the Hewlett-Packard Co., keep mum about their market shares. But HP is widely used in universities, suggesting that TI may claim an even greater chunk of the K-12 market.

Doing the Math

Photos by Michael Bonfigli for Education Week


While many educators equate Texas Instruments with calculators, the company is also the world’s largest manufacturer of digital and analog chips used in cellphones, a business that brings in most of its revenues, which totaled $14 billion in 2006. But TI’s educational technology division, which sells calculators and related systems such as networked assessment tools, is nonetheless a “good business,” said Cody Acree, a semiconductor industry analyst who manages the Dallas branch of Stifel Nicolaus & Co., a brokerage and investment firm based in Madison, Wis. And not just because of the record $200 million in operating profit that the company’s annual report says the division earned on $525 million in revenues last year.

“It’s a business that TI has enjoyed a huge amount of branding on,” Mr. Acree said. He said the company has had a strategy of cultivating its future engineering workforce through their exposure to TI in school: “It starts with their calculators in grade schools and continues on to secondary and graduate schools.”

TI’s calculators are profitable, say industry analysts, because they do not require constant research and development yet command premium prices, ranging from about $100 to $170 apiece for current, full-featured graphing calculators.

And calculator profits have the potential to grow, in light of the greater attention given in recent years to improving math, science, and technology education as a means of shoring up U.S. global competitiveness. The company claims that its new generation of computer-linked technology, called TI-Nspire, will help students understand math more readily and deeply than ever before.

“We believe we can make technology more accessible to students” and help improve workforce preparation in the so-called STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and math, Ms. Lovett said, as she presented a selection of vintage TI calculators Sept. 25 to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

Ms. Lovett said TI-Nspire, developed with the advice of math teachers and “grounded in the most recently available education research,” will help win over the many math teachers who are indifferent or opposed to using calculators in the classroom.

School Policies

Educators say TI has served itself well by hosting training sessions at educator conferences, disseminating classroom activities developed by teachers, and being generous with grants and loaned equipment for teacher institutes in districts that purchase its devices.

The result has been policies that specifically favor TI products.

“There are requirements for schools to use TI [calculators] and, yes, it does pose a problem for us,” John Casey, the general manager of Casio America’s calculator division, wrote in an e-mail.

Asked whether the market is characterized by fair competition, Casio’s Mr. Casey answered no. But he stopped short of saying TI wrongfully controls the school market for calculators.

Leah Quinn, the pre-K-12 mathematics supervisor for the Montgomery County, Md., school district, said the system has been all-TI since 1999, when the state test in Algebra 1 started requiring the use of graphing calculators.

“When the graphing calculators came out in 1990s—I was in classroom at that time—I remember one time of having nine different models of graphing calculators in the class,” she recalled. “It was horrible.”

The 138,000-student district selected TI because, “at that time, TI had the most student-friendly graphing calculator,” Ms. Quinn said. Eight years later, it would be hard to change. “We did so much with TI and purchased so many, at this point we are not going to shift,” she said.

Tied to Texts

Another district that requires TI graphing calculators for both regular and advanced courses at the level of algebra and above is the 2,065-student Springfield Township district, in Pennsylvania.

Michael Drake, a math teacher at the district’s Springfield High School, in Erdenheim, said the district has a loaner program for students who cannot afford them.

One reason that requiring TI’s devices made sense, he said, was that the publisher of the textbook he uses for his statistics course provided a supplement that gave button-by-button instructions on how to teach using the TI 83+ and TI 84 graphing calculators.

That publisher, Key Curriculum Press Inc., based in Emeryville, Calif., does not offer guides for other calculator brands, although it does provide generic information and data sets that could be used, said Tim Birmingham, a sales coordinator for Key Curriculum.

“Our focus is on primarily the classroom, and [TI] is the predominant classroom calculator, and that’s the one we use and support,” he said.

Four large education publishers, Harcourt Education, Houghton Mifflin, McGraw-Hill, and Pearson LLC, work with Texas Instruments to develop supplemental math activites that use TI calculators.

Richard F. Blake, a spokesman for Harcourt Education, a division of London-based publisher Reed Elsevier, said that printed and CD-ROM supplements to its secondary-level math textbooks give step-by-step instructions only for TI graphing calculators, “because they have overwhelming market share in secondary schools.”

Teachers can adapt to using TI-oriented textbook supplements with Casio’s models, said Suzanne Alejandre, a teacher consultant with Philadelphia-based Drexel University’s online Math Forum, which dispenses advice to U.S. math teachers. But it’s not ideal, she said: “You work with what you have, [but] it’s nice when [the guide and calculators] match.”

Rivals Seek an Edge

Rival companies, meanwhile, find it hard to persuade teachers to try calculators other than the TI brand many of them learned on, said Peter Brinkman, the vice president of the calculator business of the Dover, N.J.-based Casio America, a subsidiary of the Japanese parent company.

“Certainly there is inertia that needs to be overcome,” he said.

A key selling point for Casio is price, with some graphing models undercutting TI’s by half. At the online retailer Amazon last week, for example, the Casio FX-9750G-Plus graphing calculator was selling for $48.99, while the TI 83-plus calculator was priced at $98.69.

In New Jersey, John T. Neral, the 7th and 8th grade math coordinator for the 1,650-student Oakland school district, said the need for enough graphing calculators for state testing had tipped the balance toward Casios a few years ago. “We were able to get more product for the same amount of money,” he said.

Officials at Palo Alto, Calif.-based Hewlett-Packard said its strategy stresses the resemblance between its calculators designed for K-12 schools and those used at the professional and university levels.

“Basically, we’ve taken the technology and the learning from the professional and higher education products and put that into the K-12 product,” said Gene Vicino, a spokesman for Hewlett-Packard.

G.T. Springer, the “solution architect for HP calculators,” said HP has supported partnerships among K-12 districts, often in minority-achievement programs that include scientists, mathematicians, and university educators.

Marc Dean Millot, the publisher of the Alexandria, Va.-based newsletter New Education Economy, said it would take a major misstep to end TI’s dominance in the market for school calculators. For example, he ventured, “kids using TI calculators on standardized tests, and the calculators miscalculating.”

“You’ve got to screw up, do something wrong, to cause your clients to switch,” Mr. Millot said.

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Coverage of mathematics, science, and technology education is supported by a grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation at www.kauffman.org.
A version of this article appeared in the October 17, 2007 edition of Education Week as After Four Decades, Pioneer of Calculator Still Leads K-12 Field


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