Failing to Innovate

In 1993, I bought a graphing calculator. As freshly-minted math teacher, I was building my cache of instructional resources. And with my concentration on educational technology, I knew that graphing calculators would play an increasing role in how we teach math at the high school level.

3301122802_4e5129e931_zIt was expensive. I don’t remember exactly what it cost, but the MSRP was $130. It’s safe to say that I probably picked it up for around $100. It was a TI-85. It had a Zilog Z80 processor that ran at 6 mhz. It had 28K of RAM and a 0.008 megapixel display. I could say that I was blown away by the immense speed and power, and how it changed my perspective on how we do math. But that’s not true. I used it a couple times and put it away. I never did end up teaching math. I’m pretty sure I still have it somewhere, but I can’t find it.

At the time, just for perspective, my computer was a 386sx that ran at 16mhz and had 4 mb of RAM and an 80 mg hard drive. I paid around $1800 for it. If I used the standard depreciation model we use at work, that computer would now be worth about two cents. The few desktop computers we buy at school now are thousands of times more powerful and about a fourth of the price.

My children are at the age where they need graphing calculators for their high school (and college!) math classes. Their teachers recommend either the TI-83 or the TI-84. Having ignored graphing calculators for the better part of 20 years, I was interested to see how far they had come. Surely there was a reason that students aren’t just using their phones now, right?

I expected to pay about $25 for a device that had 1000 times the capability. Surely they would all have resolutions that could be measured in megapixels. They would certainly have wifi, and be able to share and access resources online. We don’t measure memory in K anymore, anywhere. You can get 2gb flash drives for nothing if you can find someone still making them. That’s 2 million K. It never occurred to me that the new calculators wouldn’t be rechargeable and have color displays and be smaller and lighter than their predecessors.

The TI-83 plus, which is one of the recommended models for my daughter’s stats class, runs a Zilog Z80 processor at 6mhz. It has 32K of ram (24k of which is accessible to the user). It has a 0.06 megapixel display and it’s 20% larger than my 20 year old TI-85. You can buy one on Amazon right now for about $100.

I was sure I read that wrong. A generation later, graphing calculators have moderately less capability, and cost essentially the same. That’s crazy. It’s unheard-of in the technology world. It’s running the same processor at the same speed. How can they even get the chips to build these things? They should be putting them in museums, but instead they’re selling them new, and at the same price.

How does this happen?

Texas Instruments is both strategic and lucky. When they were designing the TI-81, they courted the teachers. They went to NCTM conferences and universities and asked teachers to participate in the design of the device. They got buy-in early on. Not only were they ahead of the innovation curve, they also had the support of math teachers. That gave them a significant competitive advantage. Once they convinced the schools that students all needed to have the same kind of calculator, it was obvious what that calculator would be. The monopoly was born. Today, TI has 93% of the graphing calculator market. Most of the rest is absorbed by Casio, but those are calculators sold to people who have a choice of device. Students are almost always forced to buy TI.

And here’s the genius part: the people deciding what will be purchased don’t have to pay for it, so the cost doesn’t matter. The teacher likes the TI. The textbook is written specifically for the TI. The ACT and SAT allow students to use the TI. It doesn’t matter how much it costs. If the student has to have it, the parents will pay it. They don’t have a choice.

The mobile phone should have taken the graphing calculator’s lunch money. There’s no reason why a smart phone can’t do everything a graphing calculator can do while streaming Spotify, tracking the user’s location, and texting with friends. Certainly the tablets and netbooks and Chromebooks we’ve been all abuzz over for the last five years can easily handle the minimal work that a calculator does.

But remember, we’ve “standardized” on a proprietary, patented interface. The only way to have an app that looks like a TI-83 is for TI to license it. And they don’t want to do that. Apps that cost more than $1.99 don’t get much traction. With margins on the 20 year old hardware hovering near 100 percent, why would they undermine their cash cow? TI reluctantly released an emulator for iOS, but it’s $30, and it can’t be used on standardized tests. As far as I can see, there’s no Android version. Teachers are still encouraging students to buy the hardware.

As long as this doesn’t change, they can keep charging $100, and they don’t have to innovate at all. The golden goose will just keep laying those golden eggs.

In my case, I went to eBay. I realized that there must be a lot of people who buy the calculator because it’s required, and then realize that it’s generally useless once they’re done with math. So there are lots of used ones available. I finally picked one up for about $35.

It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of Apple. I fundamentally disagree with the philosophy of the company. But without iOS, Android would suck. The competition forces both companies to innovate. Similarly, the Office 365 platform keeps Google Apps honest. The same is true with Playstation and Xbox. Or Canon and Nikon. Or Coke and Pepsi. Monopolies stifle innovation. And the customer always loses.

I was going to stop there. But I haven’t alienated enough people yet. So let’s take this to education. If schools don’t have to compete, we don’t have to innovate. We can just keep giving the same lectures and worksheets and multiple choice tests. We can stick to our 40 minute classes and our punitive grading practices, and our pretending that there’s some correlation between what we’re doing in school and what students are going to need when we finally let them out.

That world is ending. Our families have choices now. We may not like charters and vouchers and open enrollment, but they’re here. We can complain about it all we want. We can argue that we need a level playing field, and that all schools receiving public funding should be measured by the same standards and have the same requirements. That’s all true. But it’s missing the point. Our kids don’t have to come to us anymore. They have lots of choices. We can ignore that at our peril, and they’ll go elsewhere. Or, we can redesign public education to meet their needs and keep them.

Eventually, the TI graphing calculator gravy train will end. Schools and teachers and families will eventually realize it’s stupid to keep spending this money for the ridiculously obsolete devices. Hopefully, we will adapt before they reach the same conclusion about our schools.

Photo credit: Brandon Downey on Flickr




Why Middle School Sucks

This is a FRED Talk I’m giving at OETCx this week. OETCx is the unconference component of the Ohio Educational Technology Conference. The idea with this presentation is that it’s a five minute presentation with 20 slides, automatically advancing every 15 seconds.


My name is John Schinker. I’m the Director of Technology for Brecksville-Broadview Heights Schools in Cuyahoga County. The school district I work in is not the same as the one I live in. That’ll be important in a minute.


This is my daughter, Emily, on her first day of first grade. Like most first graders, Emily was excited about school, and would do anything to please her teacher. She brought home her language arts book the first week, read the whole thing in one night, and took it back and asked for the next one the next day.


Emily’s enthusiasm for school persisted throughout elementary school. She wasn’t a genius (she does have some of her mom’s genes, after all), but she truly enjoyed learning. But that changed when she got to fifth grade.


In fifth grade she went to Intermediate School. Her classroom was not unlike this one, and her teachers’ pedagogy was very similar as well. The teacher was the source of all information, and the students’ job was to absorb knowledge.


The school’s focus was on preparing students to take the Ohio Achievement Assessments. They systematically covered the curriculum, mostly by completing worksheets. The school wanted to make sure that every kid passed the test.


In sixth grade, the OAA became the “super bowl.” That metaphor was used all year, and they counted down the days until the test. Nothing was going to get in the way. The students were going to be ready to excel on the test.


Emily saw that this was a game, and she lost interest in playing. She was reading at a 10th grade level, and her math scores were off the chart. She could easily have passed the OAA on the first day of school, and yet spent the entire year preparing for the test.


The school identified her as gifted, but in her school, “gifted” kids participated in a pull out program that gave them MORE worksheets and projects to do in addition to the classroom work that had to be made up during the pullout period. We opted out of the program.


As she finished sixth grade, we realized that middle school was going to be more of the same. There was little differentiation for students above the mean, and all of the passion for learning was being systematically expunged from the students. We looked for alternatives, finally settling on an online charter.


The online charter wasn’t any better academically. It was still totally focused on getting kids to pass the tests. But at least she could do school at her own pace. In two years, she completed three years of English and three years of math. She also had time for six hours of art per week in addition to music classes and world language. In her spare time, she wrote a novel.


Before we go on, we need to do a really quick review of standard deviation. I know you’ve all seen this before. Just humor me for half a minute. Standard deviation tells us how closely data is clustered.


With a small standard deviation, all of the data is pretty close together. With a larger standard deviation, the data is more spread out. If these are students, the ones on the left all performed similarly on the test, while the ones on the right were all over the place.


I looked at the 2014 data for the OAA math test, and this is the standard deviation of the scaled scores. See what happens? As students move from 3rd to 6th grades, they get further apart from one another. Then, after sixth grade, they get closer together. That’s because schools focus intense intervention on the students who are doing poorly, while virtually ignoring those who have already passed the test.


I thought this might be an anomaly, so I looked at some other years. They all follow the same trend. The kids get further and further apart in math until they hit middle school. Then, we work really hard to get them all back together.


What about reading? In language arts, the same thing happens, but it happens earlier. This makes sense. Schools focus on reading FIRST. Then, when the kids are all passing the reading test (6th grade), they focus on math scores.


The problem with this is that teaching to the middle doesn’t work in middle school. Essentially, this data is showing that there is no middle. The kids are all over the place. So most of the kids are either bored out of their minds or totally lost most of the time.


We need a better model for differentiating in the middle school. Academic rigor is one way to do that. Don’t give MORE work to those who understand the basics. Give them better things to do with that knowledge. Similarly, struggling students may move DOWN Bloom’s taxonomy, not to focus on LESS content, but to engage in it in a different way.


There are lots of other models as well. Blended learning and adaptive learning offer different tools for extending and differentiating that allow the teacher to spend more individual and small-group time with the students who need it. Response to Intervention is a way to apply proven intervention strategies in a consistent way. But regardless of the strategy we use, we have to do something.


This is Emily on the first day of 10th grade. She’s in Junior honors English, advanced math, and honors Chemistry. She still takes every art class she can. High School can differentiate a lot better than middle school, and she’s back to loving school again. But it was a rough few years. Middle school sucked.