The very idea seems a bit strange. Agonizing over what to wear to school (and whose logo or face to wear across on your T-shirt) has always been a kind of right of passage for young people. Yet increasingly, that process is being limited on campus.
Uniforms were virtually unheard of in public schools 6 years ago. Today 11 percent of schools around the country are requiring that their students don uniforms. (According to a survey of principals conducted in May by the National Association of Elementary School Principals).
The reasons for uniforms are almost always the same. Uniforms will decrease crime and violence in schools while improving the behavior of students, say experts. Students less concerned about who is wearing what brand name clothing are less likely to judge their fellow students or to form cliques. Also, they say, uniforms cause school pride to increase. Students feel more united, more connected, and therefore their school becomes a safer, healthier environment; students test higher on standardized tests and their grades improve, proponents of uniforms argue.
One thing that does not often get mentioned by adults and experts is the fact that uniforms are now being made by huge clothing manufacturers like DKNY, Esprit, and Bugle Boy. The NPD Group, a market research company in New York, estimated that parents spent $900 million on uniforms for elementary school children in 1998. That comes out to about 7 percent of the total amount spent on children's clothing and this number has likely risen since then. The exact size of the industry has become increasingly difficult to determine as more schools have adopted uniforms that might sound like strict dress codes. Many schools require no more of students than that they wear clothes in a limited number of colors and that shirts have collars and be tucked in. There are dangerous implications to this; however, in that many students and their families are losing what rights they have as consumers.
These are all laudable goals but a number of questions remain unanswered. Do young people believe that uniforms decrease social pressures? What do they think about uniforms in general? And finally do uniforms represent an increased attack on the rights of young people?
Safer and Better Schools?
Are schools any safer with uniform policies? Do students actually perform better or take more pride in their school? Claims that uniforms increase safety are quite attractive in the current political climate where school shootings have received high profile media attention, but there is little data to suggest that uniforms actually decrease school violence.
The school district in Long Beach, CA was the first in the country to make uniforms mandatory for all students in its elementary and middle schools in 1994. The number of fights did decline there by over 50 percent in the first year, but so did the number of fights in the neighboring Los Angeles, although schools Los Angeles there did not adopt a uniform policy. In several areas uniforms have been part of larger efforts to reduce violence, so it is difficult to isolate out uniforms as a single factor.
Academic performance is another area where uniforms tend to get credit where credit is not due. A few of the schools that have adopted uniforms have seen improved test scores. However, sociologists David Brunsma and Kerry Rockquemore looked at the effect of uniforms on students in a 1998 paper published in the Journal of Education Research and found that uniforms actually had a negative effect on academic achievement. Brunsma and Rockquemore...