Until President Clinton called attention to the issue in his State of the Union address, mandatory public school uniform policies were sporadic local occurences. A few school districts had been quietly experimenting with uniforms for years, but the issue caught President Clinton’s eye after the Long Beach, California school district released some numbers suggesting that after only one year, its mandatory uniform policy had not only brought about significant decreases in vandalism and fighting, but had also led to higher test scores.
Now that the President’s endorsement has elevated school uniforms into the realm of federal education policy, a question needs to be answered: Are uniforms a good idea? The most concise response to this question is, nobody knows. The superintendent of the Long Beach School District claims that the district’s self-generated data showing decreases in certain forms of student misconduct is proof that uniforms work. But other steps to improve student behavior, like increasing the number of teachers patrolling the hallways during class changes, were also taken by the district around the same time the uniform policy was introduced. Without further study, it is impossible to say with any certainty that the uniforms were responsible for the changes. The fact is that there are no empirical studies that show that uniforms consistently produce positive changes in student behavior over the long run.
At best, school uniform policies are purely experimental. The experiment presents some very practical problems. First, although President Clinton said he supported uniforms “if it means that teen-agers will stop killing each other over designer jackets,” the Long Beach policy, like virtually every other uniform policy in the country, applies only to elementary and middle school students, and not to teenagers.
While younger children may be amenable to uniforms — might even like them — teenagers are different. It’s axiomatic that adolescence is a time when young people strive to express their uniqueness and individuality in many different ways, and especially through fashion. Of course as several political cartoonists have pungently observed, teens are already in uniform — baggy pants, T-shirts and baseball caps worn backward. But these are “uniforms” of teens’ own choosing, and not fashions dictated from above. School administrators and teachers know that teenagers are sure to rebel against uniforms policies; that’s why so far they’ve been reluctant to impose them at the high school level.
Second, for a public school uniform policy to be legal, it has to have an opt out provision. Every child in this country has the right to a public school education, and that right cannot be conditioned upon compliance with a uniform policy. Some parents and children will have religious objections to uniforms. Others won’t want to participate for aesthetic reasons. If given a choice, it is hard to imagine that most or even many teenagers will opt to wear the uniforms. Beyond these practical considerations, the call for school uniforms is not constructive because it is a Band Aid solution to a set of serious problems that defy easy answers.
There is something profoundly cynical about our political leaders promoting uniforms in the face of crumbling school buildings, overcrowded classrooms, and dwindling education funds. The debate over uniforms is a diversion. Attractive, modern and safe school buildings, small class sizes, schools with well stocked libraries, new computers and an array of elective courses like music, drama and art — those are the kinds of changes that would produce long lasting and dramatic improvements in student deportment and achievement. But of course that would require us to invest, rather than disinvest, in our public school system.