As students head back to school in the next few weeks, they're more
likely than ever to arrive dressed in a school-sanctioned uniform, an
increasingly popular policy that may not improve schools as advertised.
Nearly one in five public schools required uniforms in 2010, up from just one in eight a
decade earlier, according to the most recent findings from the U.S.
Department of Education. The 60% growth in uniform requirements at
school comes despite the fact that research on their effectiveness for
safety and school climate is inconclusive.
than half of public schools enforce some sort of dress code, according
to the National Center for Education Statistics. About 57% of schools now have a "strict dress code," researchers found, up from just more than 47% a decade earlier.
idea of requiring public school students to wear uniforms was first
envisioned in the 1980s by then-Washington, D.C., mayor Marion Barry,
who believed standardized dress might help public school students
succeed as well as those in the city's Catholic schools. The idea
flopped, but in 1987, Cherry Hill Elementary School in Baltimore
implemented the first known schoolwide uniform policy "as a means of
reducing clothing costs and social pressures on children," writes David
Brunsma, a Virginia Tech sociologist and author of the 2004 book The School Uniform Movement and What It Tells Us About American Education.
School officials hoped uniforms would lead to "better grades, better
behavior, increased self-esteem and school pride," he says.
Brunsma's review of nearly a decade's worth of research found that
uniforms' effects were either unknown, statistically insignificant or,
in the case of a few studies, negative. In one study, uniforms
correlated with more negative perceptions of school safety and climate
by middle-school principals. In another, they were associated with worse
academic results in 10th grade.
Brunsma calls school uniforms "a
policy that is simplistic, readily understandable, cost-free (to
taxpayers) and appealing to common sense," but which made it impossible
to implement more costly solutions that "demand energy and a willingness
to change on the part of school faculty and parents."
school safety consultant Ken Trump said educators like uniforms because
they simplify their jobs, saving them from having to punish kids for
too-short skirts or shorts, for instance.
"Kids are trying so hard
to one-up each other on everything from hair styles to shoes," he says.
"It takes away the daily fashion show and helps level the playing field
a little bit with the haves and have-nots."
attend a Cleveland-area Catholic school and are allowed to show up out
of uniform as an occasional reward for good behavior. He says
administrators there tell him the school climate deteriorates when too
many kids are out of uniform.
Trump, who has been consulting with
schools in Ohio and elsewhere for nearly 30 years, said uniform policies
are often unpopular with parents at first but that parents come to
"A couple of months down the road, the parents
absolutely love it because they spend a whole lot less time fighting
with their children over what they're going to wear," he says.
what the research might suggest, uniforms remain popular with
educators, he says. "I've never heard a school administrator whose
school went in the direction of uniforms say, 'This has created more
problems for us.' On the contrary, it's been a blessing."