Few people can argue that our educational system is in crisis at every level. Teachers and administrators are battling ongoing crises from depleted funding to crumbling school facilities to exploding class sizes to gang violence. Amidst this reigning chaos, many schools are choosing to require students to wear uniforms.
This growing trend has incited debates across the country. Advocates on both sides of the issue raise important issues. Nor should a dramatic change in educational philosophy be altered without vigorous debate. Nevertheless, uniform requirements are the growing trend in education and their benefits are supported by research and by school staff around the country.
History of school uniforms
In order to fully understand the present day debate about school uniforms, it is necessary to understand the history of school uniforms in the United States. It is widely believed that only private and religious schools ever required uniforms or dress codes. This is not true. Up until the middle of the nineteen seventies the majority of public schools had either uniform requirements or dress codes. Young men were required to wear solid colored slacks usually in gray or khaki or matching the school colors. They had to wear dress shirts tucked in with a belt. Young women were required to wear dresses or skirts to the knee with button up blouses or sweaters. Full slips were required as were saddle shoes and flats.
School dress codes were challenged during the mid-seventies not because they limited self-expression but because they were sexist. With the advent of the Women’s Movement, young women across the nation realized that being barred from wearing slacks to school was discrimination. Dresses require more care and prevent common activities like running, jumping and playing on the jungle-gym. By 1980 fewer than 2 percent of public schools maintained any type of dress code. Less than two decades later, public schools began to bring back uniforms and dress codes. The primary difference is that modern dress codes apply equally to all students.
Resistance to required dress codes and uniforms began as soon as schools sought to bring them back. Despite objections, schools are turning to uniforms to address a range of school issues. Since 1994 when Long Beach Unified School District in California became the first urban public school to reinstate uniforms, research shows that there are many benefits to requiring uniforms among public school students.
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Diversity can be destructive
Budget cuts force school districts to consolidate populations and close schools. Therefore a single school is required to service a larger and larger area thereby increasing the diversity of the school’s population. Diversity can be a positive influence, but it can also be a destructive influence. Affluent students frequently react to poorer students with condescension. Poorer students react to their well-to-do peers with envy and spite. Rival gangs separated by miles of city blocks outside of school are flung together for six hours a day in a shared high school. In this environment school uniforms are a tremendous leveler. Although social status and gang affiliation are not completely concealed by a uniform, these factors are drastically muted. Furthermore, studies have shown that wearing a shared uniform advances school spirit and school identity. Instead of seeing themselves as ‘uptown’ girls, ‘skid row’ boys or members of a gang, students begin to identify themselves as “Jefferson Vikings” or “East High Mustangs”.
Everyone enjoys recognition and will pursue it through any avenue possible. This is especially true for high school students. When it is impossible to attain recognition through fashionable clothes or trendy accessories, students will turn to more constructive channels. They will focus on academic achievement, athletic excellence and extra-curricular activities. As a result students learn to value achievement over surface appearance.
Effect on mind set
One of the most persuasive arguments in favor of school uniforms has to do with the effect they have on a student’s mind set. The physical distinction between the school uniform and play clothes promotes a mental distinction between school time and play time. This is similar to how adults have work clothes and non-work clothes. By donning clothing reserved for school, the student triggers the mind that it is time to study and work. After school, when the student changes into after-school clothes the mind relaxes and changes gears. It knows that now it is time for recreation.
This learned association of certain types of clothing for different situations benefits students when they become adults. They learn to associate certain clothing with certain occasions. They understand that there is a difference between the clothes one wears casually and clothes one wears to court, to a wedding, to a funeral and to other important occasions.
What about the cost?
Critics of school uniform policies have two primary objections. The first objection centers on cost. Many parents feel that the added expense of having to purchase a separate set of clothes just for school is an unnecessary burden especially for low income families. To answer that problem many schools offer discounted or free uniforms to families that demonstrate financial need. Furthermore, durability is an important element when evaluating cost. Uniforms are made from stain resistant material and constructed to withstand repeated washings. When durability is taken into consideration uniforms are much more cost effective than more stylish clothing.
Do school uniforms oppress self-expression?
Another argument made by opponents of school uniforms focuses on the idea that uniforms oppress self-expression. However, there are many avenues of self-expression. Clothing is just one. The right to self-expression must be balanced with societal concerns. Outside of academia a person’s right to express themselves through their apparel is circumscribed continually. Nearly all jobs require some form of dress code whether it is a uniform and a hairnet or a business suit and a power tie. Health clubs and public pools require members to wear appropriate apparel. Signs announcing “No shirt, no shoes, no service” limit the self-expression of everyone from convenience store customers to library patrons. School uniforms are no more oppressive than these other clothing restrictions which are part of everyday life.
The debate over school uniforms is likely to be a factor in education discussions for years to come. The issue deserves careful scrutiny in order to avoid the mistakes of the past. The opponents to school uniform policies raise important points. Their objections deserve to be thoroughly addressed. Nevertheless, experience has proven that school uniforms have a constructive and beneficial role to play in American education.