At national, state and local levels, experts resoundingly agree: Boys are falling behind in education.
The statistics add shock value. Nationally, 70 percent of D's and F's on report cards are earned by boys. Three out of four children diagnosed with learning disabilities are boys, and boys account for 90 percent of school discipline problems. While graduation rates are on the rise in Florida, boys trail girls in every racial group.
"The concept of a one-size-fits-all education is an outdated idea, and today we see that," said Joyce Swarzman, headmaster at the Corbett Preparatory School of IDS in Tampa and one of the experts featured last week at the Pinellas Education Foundation's fourth annual education symposium.
About 150 community members and educators gathered at the Oldsmar offices of Nielsen to hear a five-member panel discuss the validity of ADHD diagnoses, the heavy emphasis on literacy in kindergarten, and zero-tolerance behavior policies.
The gender gap began in the 1950s when education was reformed to include a greater emphasis on reading, said Dr. Eric Tridas, a pediatrician who specializes in developmental and behavioral conditions.
Boys struggle most with reading and writing. Last year, 63 percent of fifth-grade girls in Pinellas County passed the reading FCAT compared with 55 percent of boys, according to the Florida Department of Education. Girls, he said, have the advantage in language skills.
Tridas recommended training teachers to do evidence-based, repetitive reading instruction.
"Reading is rocket science," he said. "Reading is the most complex thing that can be done."
It doesn't get better for boys after high school graduation. In a survey of 9,000 adults born in the early 1980s, 32 percent of women had received a bachelor's degree by age 27, compared with 24 percent of men, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Tridas also lamented that schools have less recess time. His concerns were echoed by Pamela Settle, editor-in-chief of GoodLiving magazine, who served as a parent voice on the panel.
"Parents are begging for recess to come back to the school day," she said. "The teachers are saying we need recess back in our school day."
The discussion turned to restless boys in the classroom and diagnosing attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children. Boys are three times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with ADHD in the United States.
Tridas explained that hyperactivity and inattentiveness are not abnormal but become an issue when they affect a child's ability to do what is needed in the classroom.
ADHD, he said, is "as real as the sun coming up and setting."
But Settle was wary of solving the problem with medication.
"We need to be looking across the board at how holistically can we become a healthier society — not just looking at the pill approach but what's going on with the family," she said.
Retired Circuit Judge Irene Sullivan, who handled many juvenile cases during her tenure, made the case against zero-tolerance policies in schools. She said she tried to exercise discretion with kids who came before her. Because many schools favor obedient girls, she said, she wanted to stop the "school-to-prison pipeline" that resulted in rap sheets for boys who had committed fairly minor offenses.
"Are we arresting kids because they're criminals or because they're kids?" Sullivan asked.
As for solutions, the panel called for increased recess time, more male teachers, more writing prompts geared to boys, and more books that pique boys' interest.
"I like the emphasis on teams," said Adele Solazzo, a psychologist in the juvenile division of Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court. "I think boys are used to teams … I think small teams in the classroom may inspire competitiveness and the desire to do well."
Pinellas schools superintendent Michael Grego concluded the discussion by outlining the district's efforts to keep boys on the right side of statistics.
He said the district focuses on after-school clubs, a hands-on way to engage boys in topics that interest them, such as robotics. He also stressed the importance of appropriate reading materials for boys, and adult male mentors.
"It's not all about math and science and engineering," Grego said, "but it's about engaging students in what I believe is fun activities that reinforce and apply the academics."
Colleen Wright can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8913. Follow @Colleen_Wright on Twitter.