Good for TI, Good for Schools, Bad for Kids, Bad for Stat

In my last post, I agreed with Prof. Xiao-Li Meng that Advanced Placement (AP) Statistics courses turn off many students to the statistics field, by being structured in a manner that makes for a boring class.  I cited as one of the problems the fact that the course officially requires TI calculators.  This is a sad waste of resources, as the machines are expensive while R is free, and R is capable of doing things that are much more engaging for kids.

Interestingly, this week the Washington Post ran an article on the monopoly that TI calculators have in the schools.  This was picked up by a Slashdot poster, who connected it to my blog post on AP Stat.  The Post article has some interesting implications.

As the article notes, it’s not just an issue of calculators vs. R.  It’s an issue of calculators in general vs. the TI calculator.  Whether by shrewd business strategy or just luck, TI has attained a structural monopoly.  The textbooks and standardized exams make use of TI calculators, which forces all the teachers to use that particular brand.

Further reinforcing that monopoly are the kickbacks, er, donations to the schools.  When my daughter was in junior high school and was told by the school to buy a TI calculator, I noticed at the store that Casio calculators were both cheaper and had more capabilities.  I asked the teacher about this, and she explained that TI makes donations to the schools.

All this shows why Ms. Chow, the Casio rep quoted in the article, is facing an uphill battle in trying to get schools to use her brand. But there is also something very troubling about Chow’s comment, “That is one thing we do struggle with, teachers worried about how long it is going to take them to learn [Casio products].”  Math teachers would have trouble learning to use a calculator?  MATH teachers?!  I am usually NOT one to bash the U.S. school system, but if many math teachers are this technically challenged, one must question whether they should be teaching math in the first place.  This also goes to the point in my last blog post that kids generally are not getting college-level instruction in the nominally college-level AP Stat courses.

Chow’s comment also relates to my speculation that, if there were a serious proposal to switch from TI to R, the biggest source of resistance would be the AP Stat teachers themselves.  Yet I contend that even they would find that it is easy to learn R to the level needed, meaning being able to do what they currently do on TIs—and to go further, such as analyzing large data sets that engage kids, producing nice color graphics.  This is not hard at all; the teachers don’t need to become programmers.

The Post article also brings up the issue of logistics.  How would teachers give in-class tests in an R-based AP Stat curriculum?  How would the national AP Stat exam handle this?

Those who dismiss using R for AP Stat on such logistical grounds may be shocked to know that the AP Computer Science exam is not conducted with a live programmable computer at hand either. It’s all on paper, with the form of the questions being designed so that a computer is not needed.  (See the sample test here.)  My point is that, if even a test that is specifically about programming can be given without a live computer present, certainly the AP Stat course doesn’t need one either.  For that matter, most questions on the AP Stat exam  concentrate on concepts, not computation, anyway, which is the way it should be.

The teachers should demand a stop to this calculator scam, and demand that the textbooks, AP Stat exam etc. be based on R (or some other free software) rather than on expensive calculators. The kids would benefit, and so would the field of statistics.

12 thoughts on “Good for TI, Good for Schools, Bad for Kids, Bad for Stat”

  1. Hi Norm,
    Interesting post as well.

    A quick google shows that if the kids have a smartphone, they can probably also just get an app instead of the TI.

    But it does seem that the real bottleneck in education is the quality of the teacher. A problem which R is (sadly) unlikely to solve…

  2. One thing I meant to ask about the evidence that AP stat in HS turns off many students to Stat in college: presumably students were asked why they didn’t take stat, (was this anecdotal? were they asked directly?) but were students who did take stat in college asked? What if many students taking stat in college did so because they were exposed to it in HS and wanted to learn more?

    1. It’s definitely anecdotal, but (at least in my case) occurring enough times to be quite persuasive, especially when one listens to the details. I am sure there are exceptions, of course.
      One thing that is mentioned often in discussions on AP Stat is that high school counselors steer students into the course if it is perceived that the student is not cut out to take AP Calculus. On the one hand, this might have the positive benefit of showing such students that math is useful after all, contrary to the opinion they might have had. But on the other hand, it sends a message to bright math students that statistics is not “real” math, involving intellectual challenge; this is awful.

      1. But if you ask students directs, “why aren’t you taking statistics?” they’re put in a position to have to come up with something, and why not blame their HS course? They’re not going to say to a stat professor, I don’t think it’s very important, I find it too hard, I don’t need it for my major or what have you. And, again, it would be interesting to see how many who do pursue stat in college have had it in HS.

      2. Deborah, you make good points here. Some students do tend to make excuses. But I have seen enough to be sure that the course itself is part of the problem.
        I teach computer science classes, not statistics. (I used to be in the Stat. Dept., but that was long ago.) I don’t ask students why they don’t do a stat major; I simply ask what their experience was like in AP Stat (about 25% of my students had that course), and I can’t recall even one of them praising it.

  3. — I cited as one of the problems the fact that the course officially requires TI calculators.

    Not according to the college board:
    There are more Casio models listed than TI. But, of course, the “donations” may sway each school system’s decision. (checking Amazon yielded few hits for the Casio models listed, so that’s kind of odd.) And, of course, “you can’t use minicomputers”. Dang, and I kept that PDP-11 around just in case.

    — “That is one thing we do struggle with, teachers worried about how long it is going to take them to learn [Casio products].” Math teachers would have trouble learning to use a calculator?

    I’ll admit to not having used such calculators in some years, but IIRC, the buttons and sequences (syntax) for common stat procedures can differ a lot between manufacturers; HP was once the de facto standard. (Bob Muenchen has built a cottage industry regularizing SAS/SPSS/Stata and R.) Looking at Amazon and the TI-84 and Casio FX-9750 (approved models) yields markedly different keyboards. I expect the syntax for common procedures to be more or less different. Learning both Casio and TI shouldn’t be a really big mole hill, but the notes and class materials are likely built on the TI keyboard, too. And so on.

    1. Thanks, looks like there is at least some flexibility left open, at least in principle though apparently not in practice.

      But of course the core issue is that expensive calculators of limited capability are required, whether TI or not.

  4. I think it’s worth noting that the TI-83 and TI-84 calculators were specifically designed for AP Statistics. Because they lack a CAS, they’re not nearly as useful for other courses as, say, the TI-89, the TI-nSpire CAS, or the HP 50g. On the other hand, the three calculators I just mentioned aren’t quite as convenient for AP Statistics. I have the HP 50g, which is a fantastic calculator. But it doesn’t even have a built-in 5-number summary function! I was able to write an RPL program to do that, but other things like a qqnorm plot in R are difficult on the HP 50g without some downloaded function suite.

    I do agree that TI’s monopoly on the calculator market is regrettable, even if they do put out some nice machines (the TI-nSpire CAS is a great machine). I would also say that the textbook racket needs to stop as well. There are some folks putting out common domain textbooks, which is a great start. Unfortunately, they’re not up to the published quality, yet.

    1. In my original post, I did suggest that a group open-source textbook be written for AP Stat. It wouldn’t be hard to do, and could be refined as time goes on.
      I have written several (single-authored) open-source textbooks myself. I have one for an intro probability/math stat course (“math” simply meaning that calculus is used) at It uses R.

    1. I read your thoughtful writeup at and definitely recommend it to anyone interested in this topic. I don’t have time for a detailed response, but mainly my thoughts are this:

      1. It sounds like you want far more computation in the course than I would have if I were teaching it. The statistical concepts should come first and foremost, with the computation playing only a supporting role, to make the concepts concrete. You mention that under my plan, the course would have to be revamped. I anticipated this before, but now that I see the unwarranted attention to computational digressions in the text materials you cite, I see even more that the course is currently on the wrong track.

      2. Thus I would NOT want my students sitting there with computational devices of any kind during most class periods. I would do some computer demonstrations for them myself, and put the whole thing on the Web for students to later try on their own, but the concepts must take priority.

      3. Too much emphasis on the computation detracts from the concepts. I would NOT have the students tweak graphs with nice legends and so on, for example. I’d encourage students who are interested to experiment on their own with such things, but I would NOT make it part of the course and would warn even the students who tweaked the graphics on their own to make sure they don’t lose sight of the concepts.

      4. It is true, of course, that many students need some handholding in learning the computation. This can be addressed in various ways, such as having regular time in a computer lab, maybe staffed by peer assistants, or even online interaction.

      5. Yes, I’ve never taught a high school course, but your view of me as simply an engineering professor is inaccurate. I have worked with humanities students at the college level, and I did have a short stint as a volunteer teacher at the sixth-grade level. At the level of AP Stat that I’d like to see implemented using R, the students would NOT be doing “programming,” and yes, I strongly believe that they would do fine. But again, the level I envision would be considerably lower than what you have in mind (e.g. no worrying about legends on graphs).

      6. Finally, though slightly off-topic, I must say the following: Don’t write off the low-ACT kids. A friend of mine teaches stat at a community college, one where many, probably most, of students come from low-income backgrounds and are the first in their families to attend college. My friend uses David Freedman’s book (older editions, bought for $2 on eBay), which has minimal math but much more serious treatment of the concepts than the vast majority of texts at that level — and it works.

  5. I am studying for the Actuarial exams as part of my continuing education requirement for Nevada Professional Engineer. Only ONE calculator is permitted on the exam: the TI model 30. As an instrument of computation, it is no substitute for the WP-34s that lives in my cell phone, but it can do plenty. And with innovation and hacking, I have no doubt I can get it to do even more and I will learn a lot in the process.

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