"School uniforms are one step that may be able to break this cycle of violence, truancy, and disorder..."
-President Bill Clinton
"School uniforms aren't going to replace good teaching, good principals, small classrooms, or any one of dozens of things."
-William Thompson Jr.
"Positive school attitudes from students, their parents and their peers predict desired behavior far more than school uniforms."
A THREAD OF BLUE DENIM
The School Uniform Controversy
Piecing Together the Evidence
View from the Runway
The issue of school uniforms is not a new one, for centuries uniforms have been used to predict and influence behavior, but at the close of the 80’s it became an increasingly controversial one for public schools in the U.S. Uniform supporters see implementation as a sort of panacea, curing everything from behavior problems to low test scores. Those opposed to uniforms argue mandatory policies are a gross violation of student rights, they stifle individuality, are difficult to obtain, and may be a financial burden to low income families.
In spite of the controversy, schools in the U.S. have increasingly turned to a uniform dress policy. In 1989, Baltimore, MD, became one of America’s first large cities to implement a wide spread uniform policy, extending to nearly 74% of the metro area schools. Typical school uniforms consist of a white collared shirt or blouse; dark colored slacks, shorts, skirts or jumpers; and a dark sweater or jacket.
While the rising popularity is undisputed, uniforms relative effectiveness remains unclear primarily due to a lack of research. Furthermore, other substantial findings are inconsistent from study to study. In addition, literature is primarily conducted from an administrator viewpoint and neglects to address any negative impact on the psychological development of students, or the importance of fashion to individuality and self expression. Lastly, while studies are quick to address the apparent successes or failures of uniform polices, few attempt to understand why these policies succeeded or failed in their intended goals.
In 1996, a survey was conducted among South Carolina middle school students to test the effect of school uniforms on perceived school environment. Both a school with a preexisting uniform policy and one without were surveyed. Both schools had approximately the same defining population characteristics, and in fact were drawing from the same area. The survey studied student perceptions towards teacher-student relations, security, administration, academic orientation, behavior values, guidance, student-peer relations, parent-community relations, student activities and instructional management. Uniformed students reported more positively than their non-uniformed counterparts in nearly all categories. No distinguishable differences were seen in perceptions towards administration, academic orientation and student peer relations.
A similar survey was administered during the 1998-1999 school year to 27 teachers in four urban St. Paul, Minnesota middle schools. Two schools had implemented uniforms, two had dress codes; both were low to middle socio-economic class. The CASE school climate survey tested teacher perceptions of six key components: safety, academic achievement, disciplinary problems, community climate, student/teacher relations and student behavior. The survey revealed no significant differences in achievement or perceptions of safety, though schools where uniforms were worn believed uniforms created a safer environment. Where uniforms were worn, teachers perceived more positive behavior and peer interactions. For example more similar dress led to fewer cliques, which ultimately led to less teasing and self esteem issues. They also reported that teachers had more rapport with students, as well as more interest in students as individuals. Teachers in schools where uniforms were adopted believed that, by taking away readily apparent differences, uniforms encouraged them to invest more time in getting to know individuals and prevented them from making rash negative judgments based solely on appearance. Overall, teachers perceived their school environment to be more positive and conducive to learning when uniforms were worn
Two urban Texas middle schools were used in 1996 to study not only the effect of school uniforms on both behaviors and perceptions, but whether or not uniform type (formal vs. informal) had any impact. Formal uniforms were defined as specific brands and styles dictated by the school. Informal uniforms were loosely defined styles and colors and allowed parents and students to select from a variety of manufacturers. The year following implementation showed an average decrease of 30% in disciplinary referrals. Referrals included three types of infractions: minor, moderate and violent. Dress code violations are included under minor infractions. The formal uniform dress code school decreased less than the informal, at 11% to 45%, however the informal school had considerably more infractions made.
In 1995-1996, a study was conducted using two Charleston, South Carolina secondary schools, one with a uniform policy, and one without. Both schools had similar socio-economic status, and contained approximately the same ethnic ratios. The study administered language arts and mathematics tests, as well as a survey and Cooper’s self esteem inventory. The school with a uniform policy reported higher attendance, esteem and academic scores
Searching for Patterns
Student involvement can increase uniform dress policy success. Implementation that involves parent and student input, as well as administrator input results in greater support. Often students are kept out of policy procedure, and as a result, are left uncertain as to the intended goals of uniforms . This lack of involvement can also lead to an impression of a "controlling" school environment, increased student/administrator friction, and a general dissatisfaction with the dress policy. In addition to allowing students input, greater satisfaction can be achieved by allowing some choice in garment selection-- either through a variety of vendors, colors/patterns or styles, i.e. blouses, dress shirts, polls, sweatshirts, school T-shirts.
"I have worked in districts which had uniforms and those that did not. The board in one district phased uniforms in during my administration. I saw a marked difference in attitude and behavior after uniforms went into effect. They instilled a sense of pride. In addition, the uniforms say to kids (subconsciously) that this place is different... as they are not wearing jeans, t-shirts, etc. We had a number of options in the uniform. For example, shorts on warm days, a white shirt/blouse could be substituted with a school t-shirt. The basic uniform was white tops, blue bottoms, dark socks, hard soled shoes. Bring gym shoes to school. Usually, the teachers had the kids change into gym shoes in the AM or PM depending on the time of day they had gym...less interruption. They could always wear gym shoes on playground for lunch."
"I personally have no problem with uniforms. I do not believe that it infringes on free expression. They prepare students for the real world...even McDonalds has employees wear uniforms! On the negative side, gangs require (and members are proud to wear) identifiers as an indicator of belonging. School teams require uniforms and nobody suggests that the team members are having their expressions infringed upon."
Students Weigh In
What I wore to Catholic high school was not
a uniform so much as a look. Call it Cheap Yacht Club. The rule was slacks
(never jeans), a decent shirt (no T's), a tie (clip-ons okay) and a navy blazer
with a breast-pocket crest. Most of us boys -- and there were only boys, 1,200
of us -- had only the one blazer and rarely washed it, so I have vivid memories
of jackets worthy of archaeological study for their Twinkie stains and nasal
discharges, circa 1969.
If a uniform is meant to throw a student's mind off fashion and onto Latin, I suppose our uniforms did, although I never did master Latin. If a uniform is intended to help provide an identification beyond self, our uniforms did that as well, because fanaticism for our school was total. So, as the uniform fad seeps from private schools to public, I have little against making the young sartorially indistinguishable, not even worries about tampering with their right to personal expression.
But the gimmick is just that.
Uniforms are, in fact, a perfect reflection of our perpetual quest for "if only" grails, magic wands for what ails us. If only we allowed uniforms, we hear, public schools would improve. They would not, at least not commensurate with the hope invested in them and all the time, attention and newspaper ink devoted to them.
Fairfax County's School Board, which already allows individual schools to dabble in uniforms, is now looking for ways to widen their use, but Fairfax is only one of many systems smitten by the notion in the wake of nudges from a White House always willing to go where the nation seems headed.
A couple of years ago, 5,500 secondary school principals were asked about uniforms and 70 percent thought they'd reduce violence. The theory is that because kids fight over fashion accessories, nobody will have anything worth fighting over if everyone is dressed the same, and nobody will be teased about outfits.
Uniforms, too, are supposed to save parents the expense of accommodating styles and help forge an emotional bond with a team -- the school -- that raises self-esteem. Learning will bloom in an uplifting atmosphere. All of this stems from a conviction that the public schools are rife with problems, which they are, but to resort to uniforms is to tinker at the margins.
My high school was a great school. Something like 95 percent of my senior class went to college. But that success had nothing to do with our Yacht Club look. It had everything to do with our parents' making sure we hit the books every night because they were shelling out big bucks for our educations. And we weren't big-bucks families. We were Polish, Italian and Irish clans in the west suburbs of Chicago. School was a sacrifice, and the mere fact the families were willing to make it is why most of us succeeded.
No uniform can produce that kind of home commitment. Does anyone really believe that a kid willing to kill for an Eddie Bauer jacket will suddenly accept life's proper values, and geometry, if he and everyone else are dressed alike? That self-esteem and American history will course through his veins? The families that seek uniforms are precisely the ones whose kids don't need them to be civil and attentive. They've learned how to behave at home. The problem is the kids from the dysfunctional households. They need a lot more than a blazer could ever give.
In ''School Uniforms Teach Lesson That Looking Alike Is Important'' (letter, Nov. 23), Mildred Ness speaks of energy misdirected to a concern with conformity and appearance. On the contrary, as one who wore a school uniform for 12 years, I found it had a liberating effect. It left me free to direct my energies to the very things Ms. Ness and I value: learning, being a student and maximizing individual potential.
Students who don't wear uniforms waste a great deal of energy over their appearance and in competing with other students: Is my dress stylish? Are these running shoes cool enough to fit in? Most school uniforms are simple to put on and coordinate, which is particularly helpful with very young children. For an economically disadvantaged child, the school uniform may be the nicest set of clothes he or she owns.
I did not feel robbed of individuality by a dress code. I did not grow up to be a mindless follower of shallow authority figures or senseless rules. I was fond of the school I attended and proud to wear a uniform that proclaimed me a member of that community. Such a sense of belonging is not a bad thing in our fragmented society. It gave me a clear sense of role: I was a student, I was there to learn, and I didn't have to be anxious about designer jeans.
By having uniforms, we are not telling young people that looking alike is important. We are telling them that good grooming is important, and grooming is not synonymous with conformity. There are uniforms, implicit or explicit, in all the activities and roles of the adult world - doctors, office workers, concertgoers.
It is sad but true that we are sometimes judged by appearance, by the subtle cues we give colleagues and friends through our attire. It is also true that if you dress the part, you act the part, and uniforms can have a positive effect on student behavior and attitude.
- Peggy Thompson
Despite concerns, protests, and unanswered questions, the trend of requiring school uniforms appears to be growing. Many educators seem to agree with New York school board "The policy creates a better educational climate." Simply put, with or without more significant changes, many believe that student attire affects students' attitudes and that school uniforms are the best way to encourage students to do their best work.
School uniform supporters are enthusiastic about the positive changes that have been observed in students who wear school uniforms. The wearing of uniforms affects students’ perceptions of school climate. Students are made to feel as if they are a part of a team by wearing a uniform. School climate is improved considerably because kids perceive that they fit in because they look like everybody else.
School uniforms would assist students and parents in other ways. Students would learn to appreciate the elimination of so many choices when getting dressed for a school day. Students would not be tardy for school as often because of the indecision about what to wear in the mornings (Showalter, 1997.) Parents would know that what a student puts on in the morning is what they would wear at school. Students sometimes change to other outfits once their parents leave for work. Uniforms promote a "down to business" atmosphere because kids view them as work clothes rather than play clothes. Therefore, they take school more seriously than before the uniform code was instituted
There is also more of a socio-economic balance among the students with the wearing of uniforms. Students who attempt to make fashion statements through the wearing of designer clothing are virtually neutralized. School spirit is enhanced because a feeling of togetherness is created. The gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots" is narrowed due to uniforms.
School uniforms can also create a sense of togetherness in a school building. This sense of togetherness can convey to the tax-paying public that schools are well managed because the students are under control due to their dress
The uniform industry is a growing one; sales have risen 22% over the past two years and grossed over 1.1 billion. Because of the recent rise in popularity, many companies seek to capitalize, including discount retail chains like K-mart, Ames and JC Penneys, and brands French Toast and Bugle Boy. Schools differ in requirements, ranging from khakis and an oxford or polo shirt to specific brands and colors, so it is often difficult to measure actual sales. Fashion is becoming a concern for customers, a trend retailers are quick to note. Parents will rarely purchase more than 2-3 plain items, such as skirts, pants or blouses, but when those items feature a fashionable design detail—such as added zippers or pockets—they will often purchase more. Last season’s uniformed student bore a remarkable resemblance to their non-uniformed peers: capri pants, ¾ sleeve blouses, cargo and zip-off pants. The primary difference was that of color. However, this may soon change, as many schools seek to differentiate themselves from their “navy” neighbors through the use of non-traditional “school” colors
Uniforms for middle and elementary students, per set of three, typically cost approximately $70-$90 in 1996(Stanley, 1996). While typical back to school expenditures, on average, cost $375 (McCarty, 1999). Programs exist in schools where uniforms are required to aid families who may not be able to afford these costs (Stanley, 1996). However, research has shown that families who do buy uniforms, spend more on clothing on average than families with out these additional costs. The implementation of uniforms did little to decrease the student’s desire for expensive fashionable clothing; it just changed the setting in which they were able to wear them. So in fact, requiring uniforms may be placing undue stress on a families financial resources
With the high cost of clothing today, school uniforms can lift a financial burden from students’ families. The cost of designer clothing, and especially footwear, is expensive (Timely Tips: School Uniforms Debate, 2000.) School uniforms can be purchased at one-third the cost of most school outfits that are purchased in department stores. Three school uniforms can be purchased for under a hundred dollars.
Of Kilts and Combat Boots
Not everyone is convinced, however. In a January 1998 Education Week article, Rist discusses the implications of the "Hawthorne effect," which states that a group of people who are treated in a special way may behave differently because of that treatment. In other words, students may behave better simply because they are the focus of so much attention. "No one," says Rist, "has ever been able to establish that uniforms, in and of themselves, can result in a dramatic reduction in crime."
Loren Siegel, director of public education for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) agrees, saying "No empirical studies show that uniforms consistently produce positive changes in student behavior over the long run."
Those experts and others suggest that measures such as violence prevention courses, closer links between schools and local law enforcement agencies, smaller classes, better facilities, and tighter school security are much more effective than school uniforms in preventing school violence. And they warn that many school districts may see uniforms as an easy solution to a much more complicated problem.
Some students seem to agree. In focus groups conducted by the ACLU, high school students were asked for suggestions for improving their schools. The students cited a need for more extra curricular activities, improved security at school entrances and in school corridors, increased discussion of issues such as racism and cultural differences, establishment of successful jobs programs, and instruction in conflict resolution techniques. School uniforms were not included on the students' list.
Uniforms may not save parents as much money as many people would like to believe. Uniforms do not eliminate the need for clothing needed for outside school. Students many times wear their school clothing the rest of the day once they are home from school. Sneakers, jackets, boots, casual clothing, and more will still be needed. What may first appear to be economical, may not in reality, be accurate.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has argued that due to a lack of research, it is currently impossible to ascertain whether the wearing of uniforms is responsible for producing positive changes in student behavior. The ACLU has proposed that mandatory uniforms violate a student’s free expression rights
Critics of school uniforms and strict dress codes contend that children’s individuality will be lessened. Others state that uniforms are similar to prison uniforms and make students feel entrapped.
Still other children and parents feel that school uniforms stifle a child’s creativity.
Stitching It All Together
Is a school uniform policy worth the effort? Will violence and theft decrease? Will gangs in schools be prevented? Will students be more disciplined? Will uniforms assist students to resist peer pressure? Will uniforms help students concentrate more on their school work? The most concise response to these questions is ‘nobody knows.’
Children are living, free thinking individuals whose rights must be protected, with or without uniforms. There have not been enough studies done to totally indicate that the wearing of uniforms will consistently create positive behavioral changes in student behavior. School uniforms may not work in every community. What may work well in an inner city, may not be necessary in a suburb
I do not believe that uniforms should be considered as a way to fix every school problem. But if they help teachers to get on with the business of teaching and learning, it may be in a school’s best interest to keep an open mind about looking at them as a possible alternative.
At the very minimum, schools should address the issue of a dress code. It is not necessary for the code to be rigid. But it is necessary for the dress code to be reasonable and fair. The best interests of students and their welfare should be addressed. There is no magical solution to the stopping of school violence and the improvement of discipline. Much of this answer lies in the chemistry that exists in a school between students and staff. Uniforms might appear to the public as the cure-all for a schools’ ills, but the ultimate decision on behavioral change is made by the children themselves.