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Do School Uniforms Improve Public Schools?
For many students, back-to-school shopping includes time spent picking out the outfits that are most likely to impress classmates. Subsequent school-day mornings unearth parent and child battles about holes in knees, shirts that are either a bit too tight or baggy, or sweatpants with words across the backside.
When my children started school, I dreamed of sending them to a place where everyone wore plaid jumpers or polo shirts and khakis. We ultimately chose a public school with a modesty code but no official uniform.
More public schools are requiring uniforms
However, a significant number of public schools in the United States have adopted uniform requirements. In the 2009-2010 school year, the National Center for Education Statistics reports that nearly 19 percent of public schools required school uniforms, up from 12 percent in 1999. Elementary and middle schools are the biggest adopters of uniform policies; it also has higher concentrations in city schools and schools with high levels of poverty.
Private school uniforms are often emblazoned with the school’s name or crafted in a specific pattern of plaid, but public schools tend toward cost-effective uniform choices such as khakis and polo shirts — clothing that is easy to find at major clothing suppliers like Old Navy or Children’s Place. In order to counter issues that might arise from uniform cost, some schools have uniform sharing, purchase vouchers, or fundraisers for students whose families might not be able to afford them.
Supporters: School uniforms give students confidence and a sense of belonging at school
While the cost of uniforms may seem prohibitive, proponents believe that the investment is worthwhile. Supporters report increased student self-confidence, a sense of safety and belonging, and a reduced focus on clothing as some of the significant benefits of school uniforms. Educators cite uniforms as a visible shift toward an “educational culture.”
As educator Kendra Newburgh told the New York Times,“Academics are really important, and uniforms are a piece of that…when you walk into this building as a student, you’re not focused on what someone else is wearing.” For her students, wearing a school uniform signals that they are ready to participate in the important job of learning.
Students in uniforms improve teachers’ perception of their abilities
Interestingly, uniforms also appear to also have an influence on teacher attitudes about student success. In a 2007 study in the Journal of Ethnographic and Qualitative Research, John Huss noted a significant shift in teacher perceptions of uniformed over non-uniformed students. Students often rise to the expectations of their teachers; a surprising benefit to school uniforms is that not only do students feel more connected with their learning roles when wearing uniforms, they are also perceived to be better at them.
School uniform cons: Risk of discrimination, ineffective against bullying
Public school uniforms are not without controversy. In addition to concern about expense, critics have argued that because urban and high-poverty schools are the most likely to have uniforms, making them mandatory unfairly targets students of color and poor students. Other opponents contend that requiring uniforms is a superficial solution for issues like bullying and cliques that are better managed with behavioral interventions.
Do school uniforms violate students’ First Amendment rights?
In addition, foes of uniforms say that they impose conformity and stifle students’ self-expression. A recent court case in Nevada charged that an elementary school uniform policy that required students to wear shirts with the school motto infringed upon their First Amendment rights, and that the youth organization exemption policy unnecessarily shut out local or regional organizations. Ultimately, the court found in favor of the school’s right to impose a uniform policy but required changes to the policy to properly protect students’ rights to free expression.
It seems clear that there are both advantages and disadvantages to the implementation of school uniform requirements. With the advent of charter schools and increased school choice, individual districts may be able to provide access to schools with varying dress codes, allowing students and their parents a uniform option without blanket requirements.
Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current adjunct faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.