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

September 6, 2014

(This article was first published on Mad (Data) Scientist, and kindly contributed to R-bloggers)

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.

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