students what they think about school uniforms, they're likely to dismiss them with a summary: They're ugly.
If you ask school administrators and teachers what they think, you're likely to get only slightly more nuanced responses. Some school officials believe that uniforms are a godsend in terms of reducing discipline problems - including violence - and in instilling a sense of pride and mission in the student. Others - in the minority - believe that they stifle individuality.
And if you ask parents what they think, they usually approve of uniforms because they are cheaper and prevent fights in the morning with children who want to wear plunging necklines or dragging cuffs.
Is there a single truth about school uniforms that lies somewhere in the middle of all of these differing opinions? Or is it simply a Rashoman-like tale, with differing reports from all of those concerned?
This research project examines the serious issues involved in the mandatory use of uniforms in public schools from the perspective of all of the groups named above while also examining some additional perspectives, including legal and civil liberties points-of-view to determine if school uniforms make a significant difference for the students who wear them and their schools and, if so, what the nature of that difference is. While there are a number of claims made about the effects of uniforms, there is relatively little research following up those claims, a gap that this research attempts to begin to fill.
It should be noted that this research is primarily focused on the mandatory use of uniforms in public schools, which have in general allowed children to wear their own clothes. This is one of the ways in which private schools have long required differed from public ones, as both parochial schools (primarily Catholic) as well as elite schools have set themselves and their students apart because they wore uniforms. These private schools have traditionally had specific reasons for their requiring the universal wearing of uniforms, including perhaps most importantly of all a desire on the part of the school administration (backed up by parental desire) to distinguish their students from students at other schools.
However, over about the past decade, a substantial number of public schools across the country (although primarily those in urban rather than rural settings) have made school uniforms either mandatory or voluntary for children attending their schools. (It should be noted that in some of the cases in which the uniforms are officially voluntary there may well be rather significant pressure from teachers or parents on the students to wear uniforms.
The most important reasons that school administrators cite for the wearing of uniforms (attitudes generally reflected by teachers as well) are summarized in these comments by a vice principal in the Los Angeles Unified School District. After 14 years of teaching, he has now been serving as an administrator for four years. In his work at different schools, he has worked with students who wear uniforms and those who do not as both a teacher and an administrator.
A guess that you could say that I'm almost a perfect source about uniforms because in the past five years I've been at a school where we instituted a policy of required uniforms as well as having taught at a school that went from having no uniforms to having a voluntary uniform policy.
In both cases, when we instituted a uniform policy -- whether it was the voluntary or the mandatory one -- what we talked about with the board and with other schools was what we would be getting out o it for our students. And the consensus was primarily that we would get a better level of discipline, that there would be less low-level violence on school campus and less chance o something truly awful like Columbine happening.
This administrator acknowledges that there has not been a great deal of specific information on the topic of uniforms and the extent to which they change (or do not change) student behavior, but he believes that his own experience must be counted as a good demonstration that uniforms do help with discipline problems. He makes a comparison between the wearing of uniforms by students and by soldiers - a comparison that might not please many parents, although no one could fault his concern for safety.
A did a few years in the Army myself, and just speaking from my own experiences, it was clear to me that that uniform did make a lot of difference. Sure, it was other things as well -- here at school we can't threaten a court martial -- but part of it was that uniform. It made you feel a connection to the other people around you. It made you feel that you were part of something larger than yourself and that you had a responsibility to those other people.
And we didn't know if it would work here, at the school I'm at now, but it seemed worth a try. The idea of uniforms just seemed as if it would work. And we were seeing more and more violent incidents. We had to do something. I know that uniforms aren't perfect as an answer, and that a lot of people don't like them. But having one of our students knifed in the halls -- anything is worth preventing that.
The belied that in schools where children wear uniform the overall environment will be safer than in those schools where children do not wear uniforms (or some wear them voluntarily) was the most often cited reason of those interviewed over the course of this research. This belief that uniforms make a substantial contribution to reducing violence on school campuses seems to be explain why there is so much pressure on students (even from other students) to wear uniforms even when such a policy is voluntary.
This only makes sense. If a school administrator or teacher or another student sincerely believes that uniforms reduce acts of violence, that administrator or teaching or student will do whatever they can (in most cases) to prevent students' being hurt - especially if it is something as simple as wearing a uniform. If gang colors (which are, we should note, simply a different kind of uniform, showing a different form of allegiance) are so terribly effective in creating a sense of solidarity and group pride among those who wear them, then it does make sense that school uniforms should be just as capable of inculcating a deep-rooted sense of community.
However, as noted above, one of the major problems with this line of reasoning (as convincing as it is on a gut level) is that very little stringent research has ever been done to determine whether uniforms actually produce a reduction in the level of school discipline problems and violence. Uniforms become less appealing on the policy level if they do not actually ameliorate school conditions. They may do so, but we should not simply assume that their vaunted efficacy is actual.
It should be noted that one important reason that school uniforms may not in fact decrease violence as much as school administrators have argued that they do is that most of the schools that require them are primary and middle schools. Of course, there are discipline problems in lower schools (including violence), but it is in high schools where most of the serious acts of violence are carried out. This means that the ability of uniforms to limit violence is limited by the fact that these uniforms are not worn by the students who are might most benefit from them.
Another important argument as to why school uniforms should be adopted that is often put forth by school administrators is that they are substantially less expensive than "street" clothes. This is in large measure because school districts across the nation have contracts with uniform companies, which are subject to the same kind of low-bid requirements that textbook companies must adhere to.
As a result, the cost of uniforms (according to school administrators) reflects more closely the real cost of making the clothes than does the cost of other clothes, for which a very large percentage of the cost of each garment comes from advertising costs associated with marketing a particular brand.
However, interviews with parents suggest that uniforms are not in actual practice as inexpensive as they seem to be, in large measure because parents have to buy both uniforms and "normal" clothes for children to wear after school. This woman's son attended an elementary school that did not use uniforms and now attends a middle school at which they are required.
I thought they I would actually save a fair amount of money with the uniforms, but I found that that hasn't been the case for a number of reasons. The first is that I have to buy him a whole new set of clothes for him to change into when he gets home from school.…