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The Debate on School Uniforms

School Uniforms

Educational institutions and parents go head to head

Deliberations over whether school uniforms should be implemented in public schools across the United States (US) has set off different advocacies butting against each other. Attitudes have been so diverse that even the US Supreme Court has abstained from giving its opinion. It has handed the responsibility back to where the debate started: the local school boards.

And if it were up to them alone, all public school students would already be wearing school uniforms. Many middle school officials have found a positive relationship between school uniform policies and academic and behavioral achievement. Their testimonies, though hardly based on scientific data, are difficult to ignore. Some Maryland faculty members maintain that their school uniforms have instilled in their students a noticeable "sense of seriousness about work." Even more encouraging is the observation made by middle school institutions in Long Beach, which found that a year after mandatory school uniform programs were implemented, overall school crime decreased by a staggering 36%. The same mathematics is true for academies in Seattle, Washington, where absenteeism, tardiness, and school theft decreased upon implementation of a school uniform policy.

But social scientists disagree, saying that improvements in behavior and academic performance are not caused by these institutions' school uniform policies, but rather a number of other intervening factors. And they have science on their side.

The first comprehensive scientific inquiry made about the impacts of school uniforms was done in 1998 by the Department of Sociology in Notre Dame University. The findings discouraged pro-uniform advocates: uniforms do not have a direct effect on substance abuse, behavioral problems, attendance, or student achievement.

The same research team went to Long Beach, California, to validate the exceptional claims made by school officials who said that their school uniform policies have dramatically decreased school crime and improved overall student performance. The results, however, were just as discouraging for pro-uniform parents and school administrators. Standardized achievement scores and uniforms had a weak relationship. And in terms of producing desirable behavior like reduced absenteeism, reduced drug usage and improved overall behavior, school uniforms have no effect at all.

Still, school uniform promoters pin their hopes on encouraging findings from the same study. Statistical analysis shows that uniforms strongly affect academic preparedness and 'pro-school' attitudes. In support of this, a large number of faculty members are quick to point out the benefits learning establishments may gain from implementing a school uniform policy, like preventing students from wearing 'gang colors' that identify them as members of questionable groups (and eventually make them targets of violent acts). Faculty members also claim that school uniforms will reduce distractions for students, instill a sense of community, and improve campus security because people who do not belong within the school premises, and therefore don't wear the uniforms, can already be readily identified.

These benefits fail to persuade a lot of parents, however, and their reasons are mainly economic. Most parents claim that they cannot afford costly school uniforms, and that unless the uniforms are made more casual and affordable (like jeans and a sweater), they will oppose the ruling. A growing number of them also argue that imposing school uniforms is an infringement on their children's freedom to express themselves through clothing.

It is difficult to say whether school uniforms will soon be required in American public schools. The opinions are at odds, and a consensus seems impossible at the moment. Meanwhile, some schools are starting 'voluntary' school uniform programs. The move may be too little a step to such a big undertaking, but to pro-uniform advocates, it's a step worth taking.