Death To Calculators: A Personal Journey Trying To Disrupt Math Education

Every year when school starts some influential newspaper writes an article about how hardware calculators persist and why they are favorable in the classroom even though they cost as much as a general-purpose smartphone on contract. This year it’s the Washington Post. They never come talk to me, though, which they should. To this day I’ve run a software company who has the only software product accepted for use on a national standardized exam. Here’s my story.

I remember the call like it was yesterday. I was in my car, driving to a Board members house in Corvallis, Oregon, when the phone number with area code 212 popped up. I pulled off the side of the road and hit the green Accept button and said, “Hello?” as if I didn’t know who it was. Unfortunately I also knew what the answer was going to be.

The year was 2004 and I had just spent the past three years wooing The College Board, jumping through hoops to get a Palm device with our graphing calculator software, powerOne, accepted on the Advanced Placement Calculus exam.

Before I could convince The College Board, though, I had to convince Palm. Palm really started to spin up their education efforts in 2000 or so, hiring an incredible team to go after the market. This Palm team understood that it needed industry-focused software to sell its devices and assembled some of the best mobile developers at the time. Palm helped pay for us to be in front of the market and demonstrate the power of mobile computing in the classroom, put together studies and influential educators, and made a market possible. With our help, we’d close the deal, selling devices and software to 64 million students and educators in the US alone. The opportunity was there for the taking.

Palm, though, wanted little to do with us at first. They had partnered heavily with another company for math software and didn’t realize that their solution wasn’t enough for high school math. It took a while and the help of an advocate on the team, but eventually Palm came around. Shortly after that we lucked into building our own strategic team around the opportunity, including a marketing person with years of experience in education and two influential math educators who advised TI, HP and Casio when they gained acceptance on the AP exam.

Our small team started putting the pieces in place. We made contacts at The College Board, we met with people on the committee that eventually would need to give their thumbs up to any deal, we met with hundreds of teachers, school district administrators, even state officials, who could give their mark of approval. We were building a massive pipeline of hundreds of schools and even two states that were willing to buy powerOne and Palm devices as soon as we gained AP approval.

Why AP, and why AP Calculus? What’s amazing about AP Calculus is it is given to only a few hundred thousand students a year yet it dictates math technology adoption for 64 million. Historically AP Calculus is the linchpin exam for technology in the math classroom. When TI got hardware calculators in, they started with AP Calculus and many of the most influential high school math teachers teach at that level.

So why wouldn’t schools use TI calculators in AP Calculus and software calculators on modern technology for everything else? Because schools can’t discriminate. They can’t decide who is tracked for AP and who isn’t. They aren’t allowed to make these kinds of decisions. And teaching kids to use TI calculators when they are preparing for an exam is futile. Have you used one of these things? Every time I pick one up I need a manual.

Schools choose to use the same technology for all their students, unfortunately making math less accessible to millions in the process. Our research showed the teachers spent as much as half of the class time training kids on which buttons to hit on the calculator to get the results they needed. When I’d show powerOne to educators, mouths would drop. Keystrokes were minimal because of the touch screen and you could do things — like drag the tangent around a curve — that you could never do on a TI. I remember one teacher literally crying and another proclaiming that her kids would finally understand derivatives after years of using hardware calculators.

Before that, though, we needed The College Board.

The rules for AP technology are specifically designed to eliminate touch devices, pen input and anything with a keyboard. The College Board didn’t specifically say these are the devices you can use. Instead, they said these are the technologies your devices cannot have. Pens and keyboards ruled out the Palm. We needed an exception.

Our advisors explained the process to me: first, we need to convince the head of AP programs that this is worth considering. Our goal was to show him data on how hardware calculators were the past, how they were holding back students, and how Palm devices were already gaining acceptance elsewhere in our schools. Put pressure on the Board to modernize.

If we got past that step, then we’d go in front of the committee. The committee was concerned about implementation details, so not only did we have to prove that powerOne could do what the tests needed but also that we could secure the devices, keep kids from cheating, and make it possible for the test proctor (who was likely a football coach or similar who needed a little extra pay each month) from screwing this up.

If the committee gave their approval then we’d likely see a limited roll out to a few hundred districts the first year before mass acceptance after that. From there, we could start negotiating with AP Statistics, SAT and other national and state testing programs. We were certain, however, we wouldn’t make it that far as one of the big boys would gobble us up. We figured we had 18 months of independence from acceptance to buy out.

So we got a meeting with the head of AP and a small group and pled our case. We got no response for months. And then we got lucky again. The previous head left and a new head came in. Once he was settled we connected again, went to New York again, and pled our case again. This head had vision. He was young and wanted to put his mark on the program and after a few months (like hours in education time), signed off. We were headed to the committee, where our lobbying efforts had already begun.

This is where the timing gets fuzzy for me. Somewhere in the period — the spring of 2004 — Palm fired their education team and we went in front of the AP committee. I can’t remember the order so let’s start with Palm. This was post-merger where Palm bought out Handspring and brought back its founding team. That team decided it wasn’t big enough to focus on handheld computers and smartphones at the same time so fired almost everyone involved with handhelds, including the education team. It was a monumentally stupid move. At a time when Apple was about to sell hundreds of millions of iPods, Palm gave up.

The committee, on the other hand, was much more friendly. They heard our story, saw a product demonstration (they all had the software on Palms before that), and saw a prototype of our answer to security (which was actually more secure than hardware calculators). Little birdies told us we did very well and that we’d soon get approval.

So here I am in my Honda Civic driving to a Board members house when my phone rings from the 212 area code. I knew the call was coming from The College Board soon, which was in New York City, but didn’t know when. The head of AP called to tell me that we did gain acceptance from the committee but because of Palm’s decision, the Board was not going to roll out trials.

We did spend some more time with the Board and made some important contacts. We spent the next couple of years working on a new education product, this one web-based. In retrospect it wasn’t very good. We did, however, get a contract to provide a web-based graphing calculator that is still in use on a few national and state-based exams, but the decision by Palm followed by the decision by The College Board pretty much ended my hopes of upsetting math education for the better.

In the end, math education is what it is because The College Board acts as a de facto regulatory body. Without The College Board, nothing will change. And while articles gush about the lasting abilities of TI calculators and list a plethora of reasons why it has and will remain that way, I can tell you that there is one and only one reason anyone still uses those monstrosities: because The College Board says you will.

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