There was a time when a school uniform on a student was proof of private school attendance. More and more, however, public schools have instituted dress codes that require uniforms. In many cases, these policies are based on the belief that uniforms are a quick and easy fix for school violence, bullying, inattention and a host of other ills. Currently, the percentage of public and private schools that require uniforms hovers around 23 percent, and parents pay, on average, about $250 a year to purchase the uniforms. Ten percent of public schools require uniforms. There is a great deal of debate about the value of school uniforms, however, and while proponents are quick to list the perceived advantages, those who disagree with the idea of mandatory school uniforms are just as quick to respond with their concerns.
Positive Influence on Behavior
The big gun in the arsenal of uniform proponents is a report by a Long Beach, Ca., school district describing what it believed were the effects of its new dress code. The district reported that within one year of implementation, violence, including mugging of children for their shoes and other belongings, decreased by 50 percent. Sexual assault on school grounds decreased by nearly 75 percent. Other schools were quick to report similar statistics. A study was conducted to follow up with these astonishing claims. The authors concluded that the uniform policy appeared to have a positive effect on student safety at the California school district but cautioned that more research was needed before anyone could say that uniforms were a good thing.
In the 1990s, a number of studies appeared to support the idea that uniforms offered numerous benefits with few drawbacks. A 1996 study polled students at two South Carolina schools and found that the students at the school that required uniforms rated their school’s climate as more positive in nine of 10 dimensions than the school that had no uniform requirement. The study’s authors concluded that uniforms may make students feel more positive about their schools.
Improved Learning Environment
There is a strongly held belief among school personnel and parents that uniforms improve a school’s learning environment by eliminating the pressure to keep up with fashion trends and preventing children from lower socioeconomic groups from being stigmatized because of their clothing. School administrators frequently cite statistics that they consider proof that uniforms result in better attendance and the need for fewer disciplinary actions. Although these statistics are anecdotal in nature and don’t prove that uniforms affect attendance or behavior, a study conducted in the 1990s highlighted the positive effects wearing a uniform can have on the way observers perceive students. Researchers concluded that uniforms act as a form of non-verbal communication that allows students to make a more positive impression and that observers concluded that students in uniform were better students, creating positive expectations that children may then be encouraged to meet.
Adherents to the theory that uniforms benefit children, schools and families point out that uniforms free parents from pressure to buy expensive, trendy clothing. They say that uniforms allow parents to create more accurate budgets because the cost of buying uniforms and accessories is fixed and is limited to a few items that only have to be purchased once a year unless a child’s size changes over the course of a school year.
Negative Influence on Academics
Proponents of uniforms are quick to cite studies that they believe support the positive effects of uniforms. However, few of these studies address the issue of whether the uniforms actually caused any of the positive effects that are reported, and none of them take a scientific, evidence-based approach to determining whether uniforms help or hurt. However, a study that does exactly that was conducted in 1988. The study, titled “Effects of Student Uniforms on Attendance, Behavior Problems, Substance Use, and Academic Achievement,” tested the claims by educators that were already being made at that time. It concluded that not only do uniforms “have no direct effect on substance use, behavioral problems, or attendance,” they actually have a negative effect on the academic performance of students.
Although proponents of school uniforms continue to ignore the 1988 study and to quote the limited studies of the 1990s, as researchers began to seriously address the topic in the new century, the results were disappointing. A 2003 study concluded that arguments over uniforms served only to mask deeper issues behind the problems facing schools and that the energy spent on the debate over and implementation of mandatory uniform policies would be better spent using the available science on behavior and academic issues to develop real solutions to these problems.
Human Rights Violation
The ACLU and many parents oppose mandatory school uniforms on the grounds that requiring them violates students’ constitutional rights to freedom of expression. Clothing, hair styles, body art, makeup and piercings are all forms of non-verbal communication that help children to complete their normal developmental stages. The Supreme Court has even ruled that children have a right to express themselves in this way. In Tinker v. Des Moines, the court famously ruled that children don’t “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” and affirmed that “state-sponsored schools may not be enclaves of totalitarianism.”
Although those who advocate mandatory uniforms policies are quick to cite the money parents save on trendy clothing, parents themselves don’t always agree that uniforms equal less expense. In a survey, although 86 percent of teachers agreed with the statement that uniforms are financially beneficial to families, only 49 percent of the parents agreed. One reason for this may be that students who wear uniforms still need casual clothing to wear outside of school, forcing parents to buy two wardrobes even though their children may outgrow both of them before either wears out. Another reason may be that vigilant parents may be able to find acceptable clothing on sale at reduced prices, while retailers have little incentive to reduce the cost of uniform clothing, since parents have no choice but to buy it and leftover inventory is not subject to the same seasonal limitations as street clothing.
Uniforms have a tendency to generate strong feelings in parents and students alike. Some people find the idea of children in uniforms to be a comforting, orderly solution that promises to resolve some of the most frightening issues facing schools. Others consider uniforms a symbol of repression that offers false hopes at the price of children’s basic rights to freedom of expression.