Social and Cultural Foundations of American Education/Hot Topics/School Uniforms
To start off it is important to define what a school uniform actually is. Some schools have reverted to using the traditional catholic school looking uniform. This includes the nice dark pants with a white shirt for boys. For girls it includes a jumper and white shirt with a knee length skirt. The other option, the one that seems to be the most popular is a more casual approach. The more casual uniform is khakis or jeans with a set color for the shirts. Many schools are using the more casual approach because it makes sense financially. Many of these casual uniforms can be worn outside of school.
The uniform discussion is a hot topic debate in education and one that more and more school districts are looking into – Should students be required to wear a school uniform? As school districts look for a quick fix to problems such as school violence, poor test scores, poor attendance, and substance abuse, they are considering school uniforms as a possible solution.
Before a school district decides to take such a drastic step there are many important factors and questions it must consider. Is implementing a school uniform or strict dress code the solution to the school’s problems or just a temporary Band-aid that fails to address the true causes for youth violence? And do the potential gains earned from implementing a school uniform policy outweigh the obvious negative effects it will have on the students’ morale and sense of individuality?
There are many reasons why the school district has been wanting to implement school uniforms. They have high hopes that wearing uniforms will dramatically help improve the focus on school. The first reason they want uniforms to go into effect is to reduce gang colors in schools. Many children grow up poor and in the ghettos. Gangs are not uncommon, even for young children. Simply wearing the wrong colors to school could lead to violence. Another reason for wearing uniforms is to prevent theft. Theft is not uncommon in any school these days. If kids were to wear uniforms, all the kids would dress the same. No single child would wear anything flashy or expensive. This drops the target rate for theft among shoes, and clothing. Another reasons uniforms could be helpful is for the simple fact of discipline. In today’s society children are wanting to dress like the stars on TV. The only issue is many of them are showing off too much skin. If all kids wore the same clothing there would not be the issue of determining what is too short, or showing too much. This leads us to the next reason. Especially during middle and high school when the students start to date and become interested in the opposite sex showing off too much skin could be a distraction. If a young lady wore a shirt that was too tight and a skirt that was too short it could distract some of them young men. They could lose focus on what they are learning. Another reason for uniforms is to instill a sense of “community” among the children. If all the kids are dressed alike there is no reason to feel that anyone is inferior. If a poor child and rich child went to the same school but they both wore the same uniforms who could tell the difference just by looking at the two? The last reason uniforms could be a good idea according to the school districts is a safety reason. If all the children are dressed alike it is very easy to spot out an intruder. This could play a huge role in safety issues when it comes to kidnappings or any scenario of that sort.
Principals, parents, and students have noted a possible connection between school violence and the clothing students wear in school. The fashion trends of today is largely dominated by students wearing gang-related clothing. Gang members frequently roam the streets near inner-city schools. The color of a students clothing can result in them becoming targets of violence. Additionally, such clothing arose from the clothing style of inner-city gangs, who wore oversized shirts and baggy pants to hide weapons and drugs from the police. Such clothing is glamorized in music videos and on television, but it can still be the means of transporting weapons or drugs onto school property and therefore increasing school violence. Also, children’s desire to be fashionable brings another connection between clothing and violence. Children may envy other children’s clothing, but lack the money to purchase similar styles. Consequently, children have been violently injured or even murdered for their designer clothes, sneakers, or professional sport-team paraphernalia. School uniforms may help to reduce these occurrences. Many schools feel that uniforms would help schools more easily recognize intruders. Other schools have implemented a mandatory dress code policy for both students and teachers, rather than adopting uniforms, because they believe students and teachers tend to act the way that they dress.
The Long Beach Unified School District Uniform Initiative
Those that argue for the effectiveness of school uniforms point to one case in particular, The Long Beach Unified School District Uniform Initiative in 1994. In that year the school district in Long Beach, California were the first to institute a mandatory dress code. School officials there say that since then, school crime has decreased by 76 percent, assaults committed on school property have dropped by 85 percent, incidents of school vandalism have decreased from more than 1,400 to less than 100 a year, and average attendance has reached an all-time high at nearly 95 percent (Starr).
The results of this particular case has led many school districts to follow the lead of Long Beach and implement their own mandatory school uniform policies. They look at the statistics in this case and come to the conclusion that school uniforms are an efficient deterrent against youth violence that also help boost attendance rates and test scores.
The case study done at Long Beach has also had its share of critics. Some suggest that other changes instituted to the school at the same time as the school uniform policy had more to do with the results of the Long Beach experiment. Experts such as Ray C. Rist, a professor of education and sociology at George Washington University, argues for 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, Long Beach 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" (Starr).
The Root of Youth Violence
Proponents for school uniform policies argue that school uniforms are an effective deterrent against school violence. Dr. Alan Hilfer, senior psychologist in the Children's and Adolescent Unit at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn says, "Uniforms do eliminate competition, pressure, and assaults perpetrated by older kids on younger kids for their sneakers and other possessions” (School Uniforms). But is forcing a student to wear a uniform really the solution to this problem? If a student is willing to assault another student for his or her sneakers, is forcing them to wear a uniform and look like everyone else, suddenly going to make them a non violent person that accepts life’s proper values?
The root of most youth violence is a result of students that come from dysfunctional households and forcing them to wear a uniform to school is not going to fix that problem. Reducing drug use, broken homes, out-of-wedlock births, gangs, poor schools and all the rest takes big money and big effort, not little gestures (Twomey). Instituting school uniform policies may seem like an easy and cheap solution to reducing youth violence but it hasn’t proven to be an effective one.
School Uniforms: How Effective Are They?
In a study published in The Journal of Educational Research, the authors concluded that requiring students to wear uniforms has no direct effect on substance abuse, behavioral problems, or school attendance. They found, in fact, that the students they studied who were required to wear uniforms actually scored lower on standardized achievement tests than did a comparable group not required to wear them (Brunsma, Rockquemore).
Critics of this research will still point to the case study in Long Beach and other school districts that reported positive results to installing school uniform policies. However, without accounting for other outside factors, it is impossible to know what true effects if any, school uniforms have on student’s behavior. Loren Siegel, director of public education for the American Civil Liberties Union says "No empirical studies show that uniforms consistently produce positive changes in student behavior over the long run" (Starr).
Social Effect on Students
When students are forced to wear the same school uniform as the rest of their peers and have their individuality taken away, what kind of message does that send to them? Students no longer are given the opportunity to express themselves creatively and be who they are. Instead they are being told they have to look like everyone else. We are trying to prepare students for the future world, and get them to start to think for themselves, but already we are taking one of their basic rights away.
Many educators feel that forcing a uniform on students limits the choices they can exercise in this aspect of growing up, restricting their development both in school and later in life. If students feel uncomfortable and insecure in class because of their dress, they will be less receptive to learning due to their feelings of anger and embarrassment. As a result, they will be less likely to attend school, behave appropriately in class, pay attention to instruction, and perform at a higher level of achievement, which is what those in favor of school uniforms hope to improve (Caruso).
Rather than looking at for a quick and simple solution school districts should consider other factors when dealing with problems in schools. Many experts 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 (Starr).
The fact is there is no substantial proof that school uniforms alter students’ behavior and improve test scores and if these problems want to be remedied, school districts should look at root problems. School uniforms may seem like an effective solution, but in the end the only thing they are proven to be effective in is suppressing individuality among students and lowering a child’s self-worth. Schools should be encouraging uniqueness among students and respecting their right to freedom of expression rather than taking that away.
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- Brunsma, D. L., Rockquemore, K. A., (1998). The Effects of Student Uniforms on Attendance, Behavior Problems, Substance Use, and Academic Achievement. The Journal of Educational Research. Retrieved February 3, 2007. http://www.members.tripod.com/rockqu/uniform.htm
- Caruso, Peter (September 1996). Individuality vs. conformity: The issue behind school uniforms. National Association of Secondary School Principals. Retrieved February 3, 2006, from FindArticles database. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3696/is_199609/ai_n8745783
- Guzman, Angela. Prior Student from Ruffner Middle School.
- King, Keith. A. "Should School Uniforms be Mandated In Elementary Schools?" New Century School. January 1998. 20 April 2007. http://wicip.org/ncs/forumuniformseval.htm
- Leake, Leanna. Prior Teacher from Ruffner Middle School.
- Ruffin, Jennifer. Prior Student from Ruffner Middle School.
- School Uniforms: Pros and Cons (n.d.). February 3, 2006, from http://school.familyeducation.com/educational-philosophy/individuality/38676.html
- Starr, Linda (2005). School Uniforms: Pros and Cons. Retrieved February 3, 2006, from http://school.familyeducation.com/educational-philosophy/individuality/38676.html
- School Uniforms