Making Them All Look the Same

Chris McNutt
February 9, 2019
It’s not enough that students are required to attend whitewashed, water-downed classes that the masses can distribute, but now they must have the same on their bodies.

Schools framed as “elite”— those that often reflect the most traditional notions of education — tend to require uniforms. “Dress for success” is the mantra. And increasingly, schools are requiring “business casual.” There’s many reasons for this, from attempting to show economic equity (less chance for branding) to stopping gang violence. However, is forcing students to all look the same just a reflection of the standardized model of education? It’s not enough that students are required to attend whitewashed, water-downed classes that the masses can distribute, but now they must have the same on their bodies.

There’s a lot of research on this topic. Thankfully, the Journalist’s Resource has cataloged much of it:

Synthesizing all this data, it’s hard for me to find a substantial causation between school uniforms and student success — at least one where benefits outweigh the detrimental effects.

Candidly, uniform policy is used as a way to “pull the wool over the eyes” of educators and establish more systems of control. Like any policy where students are told what to do, they’re more likely to obey when under surveillance but are less likely to change their behaviors — such as when a strict teacher belittles everyone to never speaking and their class is suddenly “out of control” when they’re gone for a day.

To take each of these points, it’s easy to decipher why school uniforms are perceived as they are:

Uniforms increase attendance and test scores. Yes, more students attend school where uniforms are required but the results are hazy. In the Gentile & Imberman study, they found a modest increase of attendance and test scores particularly among female students in middle and high school. For male students, especially in elementary school, there was a short-term drop in attendance and test scores. Importantly, the authors note that girls are more likely to be transferred out of the public schools studied. The area analyzed is populated with uniform-required, “high-ranking” schools that many privileged students attend. Therefore, the 4–5% higher attendance rates could be partially or wholly contributed to the highest academically achieving female students leaving for a different environment, especially considering that all noteworthy achievement gains, outside of 2-year improvement in male math scores, were attributed to female students.

If another study existed, it would be interesting to note if female students are transferring to other schools because of the uniform policy or because perceived better academic opportunities await at uniform adopted charter schools. This would correlate with ample research showing that female students perform better in all facets of academics during traditional school years. Plus, Yeung (2009) indicates that the academic benefits are misrelated.

Furthermore, the same study finds a correlation between increased disciplinary referrals as a result of uniform policy, and an increased number of minor discipline issues with male students.

At the same time, students with more discipline obviously do better in traditional academic environments, as shown in Baumann (2016.) They are more likely to wear uniforms — but again, the schools with uniform policies were more likely to be perceived high-ranking charter schools. It only makes sense that that those excelling in traditional academics, when placed together in a uniform-adopted location, had increased scores.

Uniforms cause less discipline problems. This point perplexed me. In Sanchez, Yoxsimer, & Hill (2012), there was a notable decrease in violent behavior — with 50% or more reductions in gang related activity and fights. Notably, the reason this school adopted a uniform policy was due to overwhelming gang activity. However, Brunsma & Rockquemore (1998) stated the opposite: uniforms cause more non-uniform related discipline problems. Perhaps, this was due to the first study consisting of one school with 700 surveyed vs. the later focusing on schools in multiple regions. And/or, as Brusma & Rockquemore find, the correlation of positive behavior and students was due to pro-school attitudes and peer attitudes, not uniform policy. It could be hypothesized that in the singular school of Sanchez, Yoxsimer, & Hill — students perceived a better school culture and acted accordingly.

In general, these studies reflect that a uniform dress code causes increased discipline problems due to more (predominately male and minority) students being written up, but depending on the location, gang-affiliated clothing is likely unreasonable for schools. Essentially, we should aim toward common sense regulations that most students, in my opinion, would support (we could ask) while not homogenizing all culture at schools — especially when uniform efforts like these tend to target and hurt low socioeconomic areas, as Norum, Weagley, and Norton (1998) found.

Uniforms take away a student’s culture, rights, and self-value. As Wade & Stafford (2003) and Sanchez, Yoxsimer, & Hill (2012) recognized, students were overwhelmingly against uniform policies. Like most progressive practice, it makes sense to listen to students. In my view, the increased disciplinary or cultural problems are a result of perceived changes of students acting naturally within the traditional education system. When students are forced into more rigid behaviors — including all dressing the same — teachers are less likely to recognize “nonconforming” actions.

Furthermore, there are a range of cultural and identity issues that arise from uniforms that target gender nonconforming and/or minority students, as well as reinforce traditional gender norms.

Therefore, the uniform debate is misguided. Although policymakers would see test scores, violent behavior, or attendance rates as being more important than students’ feelings, the current research does not correlate that data by explicitly wearing uniforms. We want students to be treated like human beings — not making them robots. Robots look basically the same, people don’t. They have a right to expression and finding out who they are — something which clothing-choice reinforces.

I’m sure many educators would note that their uniform-wearing students are more engaged in the classroom. But I question the term, “engagement.” Are they more curious? More involved? Being more reflective on what they’re learning? Or are they simply less distracted in the non-natural standardized learning environment they find themselves in? On “dress down days”, are students wild and uncontrollable? Are they suddenly lashing out and violent? Do they suddenly start failing tests?

(As a side note, my own school requires “business casual dress” as it is believed it promotes academic achievement, and more-so “to prepare students for local jobs.” I am heavily bothered by the claim that once my students leave our school they’ll be incapable of putting on a pair of khakis because they didn’t in school — I’m going to assume they’re capable. I’d rather encourage students to dress up for certain events, such as attending a conference they’d like to go to. Professional courtesy is entirely different than compliant cohesion. The “self-discipline” acknowledged by dressing yourself in a certain fashion each day speaks incredibly lowly of what we believe students are capable of. “You understand how to put a belt on.” Really? That’s what we think they can’t do? It’s rebellion, apathy and/or affordability that causes dress code violations — not incapability of knowing how to get dressed.

Furthermore, we have “dress down days” and one can only dress down if they fit that theme. It seems a ludicrous notion that having students wear pajamas around the school is less distracting and/or socially acceptable than a student opting to wear a T-shirt.)

Are uniforms a faux sense of control? Schools (and many “progressive” institutions) describe their policy:

And most highlight how their student government voted for uniforms. I’m completely for democratic claims for students to determine their appearance, but student governments are often 1) not representative of the student body and are some of the most complaint, hand-picked children, and 2) is it really fair to the majority of students that this body has this power when they must attend school daily? As in, when one has little choice of where to go to school — and the primary purpose of school is meant to be academic achievement — is it ethical for a small group of students to instigate what everyone must do? It appears to go against the Constitutional claims of the United States. In addition, I’d be curious what happens when a student rallies others together to remove the dress code — I’d be highly surprised if this was taken seriously or listened to by administration.

The disconnect is obvious between research, practice, and implementation. I believe there’s no reason for school uniforms in any scenario — unless every student desires it. Obviously, common sense codes make sense — eliminate gang-related clothing…wear clothes to school…basic things. But enacting controls that allow for little to no selection is another instance of schools using their overwhelming power to dictate the lives of children.

Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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