Can School Uniforms Really Impact Public Schools?

For years, private schools have required school uniforms as a means to increase efficacy and a sense of unity in the learning environment. Although it has taken public schools time to embrace the idea of uniforms, it is slowly gaining in popularity. When it comes to public schools, proponents of the uniform debate got a boost from then-President Clinton in 1996.

In a State of the Union Address, President Clinton stated, "…instructed the Federal Education Department today to distribute manuals to the nation's 16,000 school districts advising them how they can legally enforce a school uniform policy." His concern was children fighting each other over things like clothing, and getting kids to realize it's what's on the inside that matters more than what's on the outside.

Although the majority of public schools currently have no such policy in place, many are exploring the benefits of requiring students to dress the same way. Unfortunately, studies have been slow to determine the exact positives in a quantifiable way. Uniforms have been shown to lead to higher student achievement, and although there are many pluses to wearing a uniform, there are some drawbacks as well.

The Cons

A Financial Burden: While it would seem that wearing a uniform would mean less money needs to be spent on clothing, some parents object to buying more 'required' clothing. Parents, especially those with more than one child, may shop sales or discount clothing stores in an effort to save money, but these types of stores rarely carry specific uniforms.

Difficulty of Finding Uniforms: During the fall, standard uniforms can be easy to find in more than a few stores. As the year progresses, however, many stores don't order replacement stock since sales taper off. Young children can grow fast and when they outgrow their uniforms, it can be difficult to find replacements, unless the school district is willing to open their own store.

Navigating Religious Objections: Parents from certain religious backgrounds may be reluctant to have their student dress in uniform when the uniform goes against their belief system. Because of this, school districts must offer some type of opt out provision, making 100% compliance impossible for some districts.

Suppresses Individuality: Growing up is a time for children to learn what they like, what they're interested in, and who they really are. Some children use clothing and accessories to explore their own uniqueness and when that element is taken away, it can be more difficult for them to feel like an individual with their own special gifts and creativity.

The Pros

Safety: When schools require uniforms, it is easy to quickly recognize someone who doesn't belong on campus. This can help deter anyone who might be there for disruptive reasons and can give educators a visual warning of intruders.

Discourages Gang Affiliation: Gangs have long been known to use certain accessories or apparel to denote membership within their ranks. When children are not allowed to wear these 'signals,' it gives them a greater chance of not getting involved in the first place, thereby decreasing gang activity.

The Great Equalizer: For years, children have felt the burden of having to compete with their peers, whether it's wearing brand name sneakers or the "right" jeans. This burden is lifted when all students are required to dress the same, and it negates any social or economic differences amongst students, which can lead to higher self-esteem.

School Spirit: When people all look alike it can promote a sense of unity and belonging. When children feel accepted, they are able to concentrate on things that really matter, such as learning.

Decline in Bullying: It is much more difficult for bullies to target someone who looks just like them. Although each child still has his or her own individual look, there is a greater sense of belonging when everyone is dressed the same.

The University of Nevada-Reno College of Education conducted studies on Nevada middle schools to find out how implementing uniforms changed attitudes towards a uniform policy. "Although 90 percent of the students indicated they did not like wearing uniforms, various benefits to wearing uniforms were reported, including decreases in discipline, gang involvement and bullying; and increases in safety, ease of going to school, confidence and self-esteem."

With the materials provided to school districts from President Clinton, it is easier for schools to implement uniform policies. While there may be some initial backlash from reluctant parents and students, the benefits over the long term may help to change their minds. Although any school that is switching to uniforms may experience some growing pains, such as how to discipline for non-compliance, many people believe the results can be incredibly beneficial for students in the long run.