The issue of whether or not students should wear uniforms is near and dear to my heart. During my elementary and high school years I attended many schools. Two of the schools were Catholic schools, which required a formal uniform. The Lutheran school I attended had an enforced dress code. There was no dress code at the three public schools I attended.
In 1999, the New York City public school system began enforcing a mandatory uniform policy in its more than 670 elementary schools. (Knowles, 2000) In light of this, I think it is relevant to examine the various arguments presented by both sides in this debate.
In America wearing uniforms in public school got a push from President Clinton in his 1996 State of the Union address. (Evans, 1996) President Clinton believed that wearing uniforms was a necessary step to help decrease violence in our schools. This came in the wake of increasing incidents of student violence and theft because of designer clothing being worn to school.
According to the “Manual on School Uniforms”, from the United States Department of Education there are five potential benefits of school uniforms. Firstly, they believe that school uniforms will decrease violence and theft. The second potential benefit of school uniforms is that they will prevent gang members from wearing gang colors and insignia. Thirdly, wearing uniforms will instill discipline in students. Fourth, the manual states that wearing uniforms will help parents and students resist peer pressure. Lastly, uniforms help students concentrate on their schoolwork. (Manual on School Uniforms, 2000)
Scientific research regarding these claims is beginning to appear. In “The Effects of Student Uniforms on Attendance, Behavior Problems, Substance Use, and Academic Achievement” the authors, David Brunsma and Kerry Rockquemore, used data that was obtained from tenth grade students. They used this data to test the claims made by uniform advocates. They found “student uniforms have no direct effect on substance abuse, behavioral problems or attendance”. (Brunsma and Rockquemore, 1998) In fact, the study found that there was a negative effect on academic achievement when students were forced to wear uniforms. The researchers did find that uniforms fostered academic preparedness, proschool attitudes and peers having proschool attitudes. They concluded “that uniform policies may indirectly affect school environment and students outcomes by providing a visible and public symbol of commitment to school improvement and reform”. (Brunsma and Rockquemore, 1998)
The previous study supports uniform proponents who argue that wearing school uniforms creates a sense of school spirit. These uniform proponents rationalized that this school spirit will lead to academic pride, which will lead to academic achievements. (Jacobson, 2000) The previous study does not support the second claim.
According to proponents of wearing uniforms, a potential benefit of wearing uniforms is that students are easily identifiable. This easy identification is helpful to teachers during class trips. (Public Debate, 2000) Some people believe that wearing uniforms makes students identifiable, which causes them to act better while coming to and going home from school. (Public Debate, 2000) In addition, intruders in the school building are easily identifiable because they do not wear uniforms. (Forbes, 1994)
Opponents of school uniforms argue that uniforms make student’s easily identifiable not just to teachers and security guards but also to students from rival schools. (Public Debate, 2000) They fear that uniforms will emphasize the division between the schools. This in turn may lead to bullying and fights by students from other schools.
Advocates of uniforms claim that another potential benefit of wearing uniforms is that uniforms act as social levelers. (Jacobson, 2000) Proponents of uniforms believe that uniforms help to foster feelings of equality amongst students. For many teens, in order to be cool they must wear the latest fashions. These trendy fashions tend to be costly. Students who are unable to afford the latest fashions are teased. Wearing uniforms take away the peer pressure to own the coolest clothes since everyone is wearing the same clothes.
Opponents of uniforms argue that adopting uniforms does not blur economic lines. Instead wealthier students purchase uniform accessories or wear designer jewelry. Wealthier students will also be able to afford several uniforms. By having several uniforms they are able to reduce the look of wear that uniforms get over time.
Uniform advocates argue that all the pressures of wearing trendy clothes distracts students from focusing on schoolwork. They believe wearing a uniform promotes equality. Proponents of uniforms believe that uniforms foster a sense of community, which helps students focus on their schoolwork. (Kaiser, 1985) They believe students will feel a sense of inclusion if they are wearing the same uniform as everyone else. There is however no scientific proof to support this claim.
Many parents advocate uniforms claiming that they provide an extra level of security in school. (Jacobson, 2000) Proponents of uniforms believe that uniforms add security because it is harder to conceal weapons while wearing a uniform. (Knowles, 2000) They argue that uniforms will cut out the number of thefts of designer clothes and sneakers.
Proponents of uniforms believe that wearing uniforms will reduce the number of gangs in schools. Gang members usually wear something that identifies them as a gang member. The theory behind wearing uniforms is that gang members will no longer be able to identify themselves if they wear uniforms. The main problem with that theory is that gang members will find some way of identifying themselves despite the uniform requirement. They may wear certain color shoelaces or nail polish to show their gang member status.
One of the biggest arguments against uniforms is the belief that uniforms stifle student’s individuality. (Curle, 2000) Some fear that this lack of individuality may result in teachers not treating students as individuals. Many people believe that uniforms enforce conformity, which hinders creative abilities and limits personal expression. (Knowles, 2000) Proponents of uniforms argue that creativity is expressed in many ways and has little to do with what you are wearing. (Donohue, 1996)
Another argument used by opponents of school uniforms centers around the way uniforms look. Parents and students find that uniforms are generally ugly and impractical. Girls in particular complain about being forced to wear dresses and skirts. They argue that pants are more practical and warmer in the winter. (Public Debate, 2000) Some people believe that because the uniform manufacturers have a captive audience they do not make the clothes very well. They often use inferior materials and designs in the production of uniforms. (Public Debate, 2000)
In the end, I agree with those who argue that wearing school uniforms is cosmetic at best and will not change the way a child learns. (McCarthy, 1996) Uniforms in and of themselves will not improve schools. School reform requires hard work and many changes. I believe the intense focus on this debate is just another way of avoiding the inevitable overhaul our school system needs to go through in order to be truly effective.
Brunsma, David L. and Rockquemore, Kerry A. “The Effects of Student Uniforms on Attendance, Behavior Problems, Substance Use, and Academic Achievement.” The Journal of Educational Research, v92, no. 1, Sept./Oct. 1998, pp. 53-62.
Curle, James. “In praise of school uniforms”. March 9, 2000. Technicianonline.com. [on-line]
Donohue, J.W. (1996, September 3). “There’s Something About a Uniform.” America, Vol. 175, p. 18.
Evans, Dennis. “School Uniforms: An “Unfashionable Dissent.” Phi Delta Kappan, Oct. 96:139-140.
Forbes, S. (1994). “A Uniformly Good Idea.” Forbes, v154, p.26.
Jacobson, Jennifer. “Should students have to sacrifice their personal style for safety sake?” SmarterKids.com. [on-line]
Kaiser, S.B. The Social Psychology of Clothing and Personal Adornment. New York: Macmillan, 1985.
Knowles, Bryan. “Should School Uniforms be Mandatory?” Speakout.com. [on-line]
Manual on School Uniforms (2000). Updates on Legislation, Budget, and Activities [on-line]
McCarthy, C. “Uniforms Aren’t the Answer.” The Washington Post, 16 Mar. 96: 17.
Public Debate. “School uniforms: Should they be worn?” Public Debate.com. [on-line]
Siegel, Loren. “School Uniforms.” ACLU Point of View, March 1, 1996. [on-line]