The Psychological Reason Behind School Uniforms

August 26th 2015

More public schools are requiring that students wear uniforms now more than ever before, according to the U.S. Department of Education, which found that between the 2003-2004 and 2011-2012 school years that the number of students wearing uniforms increased from 13 to 19 percent.

This month, as thousands of parents and students begin back-to-school shopping, they are often to prepping for uniform wear, which many school districts believe can curb bad behavior—that’s the stance that countless public school systems across the country have adopted in recent decades.

In 1994, the Long Beach school system adopted school uniform regulations and saw a significant drop in behavioral infractions and drug violations. Ten states immediately followed suit, and the numbers don’t show signs of scaling back any time soon. Today, the National Center for Education Statistics reports that between 12 and 30 percent of U.S. public schools require uniforms.

But can uniforms actually work as school-wide peacekeepers? By eliminating designer brands, can they eliminate bullying, too? Furthermore, how often is the success of uniforms anecdotal, and how much is scientific? ATTN: takes a look at the positive and negative impacts of school uniforms.

Pros of school uniforms

There are a few reasons that public schools opt-in for district-wide uniformity, and infraction reduction not the only argument in favor of uniforms.

It’s less expensive

Eliminating competition for designer brands and the latest style make school uniforms cheaper for lower income families, uniform proponents argue. This is particularly true for students in public city school districts compared to suburban, town, or rural areas. In addition to a lower price tag on uniform clothing, the lack of flashy “cool clothes” eliminate elevated status and act as a social equalizer in the classroom. This comes into play in high-poverty schools, where 76 percent or more of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, and often safety and security can factor in reasons for why students are required to wear uniform styles. Cities with the highest use of uniforms in public schools are:

  • Philadelphia (100 percent of schools)
  • New Orleans (95 percent)
  • Cleveland (85 percent)
  • Chicago (80 percent)
  • Boston (65 percent)
  • Miami (60 percent)

A matter of distraction

Some argue that students are so focused on their wardrobe that it takes their attention away from learning. Uniforms encourage discipline, can prevent gang activity on campus, and encourage students to resist pressures to buy clothing that is trendy. Creating an environment where wardrobes have consistent tones is believed by some to be conducive to learning, can improve attendance, and also create a stronger sense of school pride and belonging. This logic means that as a result, student performance is increased and everyone goes home happy.

Stranger danger

Keeping everyone in the same clothes or color palette keeps outsiders from finding ways to intrude, proponents say, because students and staff are easily recognizable.

Still, not everyone is onboard with uniforms. While supporters have strong points, opponents of the issue have viewpoints of their own.

Cons of school uniform

Uniforms suppress individuality

“This is how students express themselves… taking these away from someone is like taking away a part of them,” writes one online commenter on an online forum.“ A lot of kids pride themselves on being different. Most kids don’t want to be like everyone else… why take that away from them?”

In addition to suppressing individuality, some argue that it does not level a socioeconomic playing field. In an article written in 2014, journalist Ellen Friedrichs writes: “Cell phones, sneakers, and jewelry all help point out those distinctions just fine – not to mention where kids live, what they bring for lunch, the car a parent drops them off in, the spending money they have, and a thousand other markers.”

It is difficult to enforce

Consequences have to exist when students violate a uniform policy, or else there is no incentive to follow the guidelines in the first place. But where is the line between making sure that they adhere to the appropriate guidelines and disrupting a student’s education? People who reject uniform policies argue that too much time is spent fussing over whether or not belts and pants are the right color or style. This is particularly problematic in schools where more freedom is given for parents and kids to “choose their own” clothing, so long as it falls within uniform requirements. But at what point is it more valuable to leave a student in their history class, even if they’re wearing the wrong shade of brown?

Do uniforms lower crime or drug use in schools?

Do uniforms actually lower crime and drug violations in school, or are the roots of these issues being swept under a homogenous rug? It’s perhaps the most controversial argument surrounding school uniforms today.

“You just can’t hide anything if your shirt is tucked in,” argues a New Jersey public school that promotes the use of uniforms. “If everybody is kind’ve wearing the same thing, you’re safer.”

The Clinton Administration thought so, too. In a 1996 speech broadcast on the radio, then-President Bill Clinton made the following statement: “If it means teenagers will stop killing each other over designer jackets, then our public schools should be able to require their students to wear school uniforms.”

Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. Those who disagree with uniforms argue that instilling them is merely placing a Band-aid on the real issues that cause students to lash out in school, which run much deeper than the color of a polo shirt or the brand on jean pockets.

Opponents argue that requiring students to wear uniforms is merely treating a symptom of the problem, not treating the root cause.

Dr. David L. Brunsma, a professor of Sociology at Virginia Tech, co-authored a study analyzing the effectiveness of uniforms in tackling school absences, behavioral issues and substance abuse in a national sample. The study found that uniforms had “no effect” on the issues. The study suggests that it also had “no effects” on “pro-school attitudes, academic preparedness, and peer attitudes toward school.”

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Should public schools require uniforms?

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