As thousands head back to classes this week, a former head of Memorial University's math department is warning that something dramatic needs to be done to improve what he describes as poor math skills of students in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Herbert Gaskill guided Memorial University's Department of Mathematics and Statistics for about six years, and said what he encountered time and time again was worrisome.

He says the current math curriculum is "a mile wide and an inch deep," and a lack of memory-based instruction in the early grades, such as learning times tables, is setting students up for failure. 

"When I was head at Memorial University I saw too many students coming in the door [from high school] who had very high grades in math and were not prepared for [university]," said Gaskill, who is now retired but still advocating for substantial changes in the math curriculum. 

Gaskill said the evidence that many students were not prepared — despite what their school transcripts say — could be seen in the number of students who failed the university's math placement test.

The MPT is a specially designed test that some students who are entering post-secondary have to take, to help gauge the student's ability in certain areas of mathematics.

Depending on their MPT score, the student would either then be permitted or not allowed to register for certain courses.

"The impact of this is that they can't get jobs, they can't get into programs they want, and they are looking at a life time of unfilled dreams,"- Herbet Gaskill, former head of math and statistics at Memorial University

Gaskill said giving high school students the wrong impression of their math ability, only to have them fail the MPT while trying to enter university, can be devastating.

"The impact of this is that they can't get jobs, they can't get into programs they want, and they are looking at a life time of unfilled dreams," said Gaskill.

Start with children early

Gaskill, along with his wife Catherine, recently wrote a book titled Parents' Guide to Common Core Arithmetic: How to Help Your Child. The book focuses on primary and elementary math. 

The pair said parents have a better chance of helping their child early on, if they suspect a potential problem that their child may be experiencing with math problems.

Gaskill said that it is easier for most parents to help their child with more simple math problems while they are in early grades, and that correcting any potential issues early, is important.

"By the time kids get out of high school, it is far too late," he said.

"If you want to solve this problem you have to solve it at the very beginning by not letting it happen."

But Gaskill said the full onus should not be on parents themselves, and points to issues within Newfoundland and Labrador's math curriculum.

Two issues in math curriculum

"There are two issues, one the curriculum has been loaded down with a lot of topics that don't focus with the core issues around numbers," Gaskill said.

"Second, there has been a complete focus on the notion of understanding as opposed to developing memory in respect to mathematics."

"My question to the minister [of education] is, 20 years from now, when students come to Memorial and don't get into programs, who is going to take responsibility for that if the cause for not being able to get into those programs is they can't pass the [MPT]," he said.

"It is time that every adult in the province take responsibility for the fact that children need to learn what they need to learn."