When the Long Beach (Calif.) Unified School District required its K8 students to begin wearing uniforms in 1994, it wasn't clear whether the new policy would become just the latest clothing fad or something more lasting. Eleven years later, the district is sticking to its fashion statement and even expanding its uniform requirements to high school.
In the time since Long Beach began its policy, it has been joined by thousands of other schools, from Baltimore to Denver to Boston, and a host of districts in between. According to researchers, 23 percent of all elementary schools had adopted uniforms by the end of 2002, and a growing number of middle and high schools have followed suit.
Along the way, presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have endorsed the practice--the former in his State of the Union addresses and the latter through tax breaks. The U.S. Department of Education offers an online manual to guide districts in establishing uniform policies. And many an educator says that introducing uniforms has fulfilled the promise of safer, better behaved, and higher achieving schools, even though recent studies question whether the credit should go to a dress code.
Backers Cite Decrease in Crime
"There's more time students are involved in the instructional process and less concern over what their classmates are wearing," says Jed Deets, superintendent of schools for the Cahokia (Ill.) Unit School District 187, not far from St. Louis, Mo. "I think students will tell you that it makes their day so much easier when they can get up and put on one of their blue, black or khaki slacks and one of their district shirts."
For the fourth year in a row, all 5,000 of Cahokia's K-12 students are coming to school in those pants and an assortment of colored polo shirts embroidered with the district insignia. Those, says Deets, have become the colors of success, and he points to the student body's two-grade-level improvement on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills since the uniform policy went into effect.
"Uniforms are a very sensible way to go, particularly in communities like ours, where families are economically challenged everyday," adds Wilfredo Laboy, the superintendent of the Lawrence, Mass., public schools, where the K-8 students have worn blue-and-white since 1998.
"It's wonderful to be able to buy two pairs of pants, three shirts, and send your child to school for the rest of the year. There's a practical economic advantage of not having to compete with DKNY, Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger."
Laboy also says students benefit from an increased sense of belonging to the school community and a greater seriousness of purpose. "There is a certain preparation that takes place as you go to this place called school, and I think uniforms set that tone," he says.
When Aycock (N.C.) Middle School joined the uniformed ranks this past fall, Principal William Price saw an almost immediate 50 percent reduction in suspension referrals and arrest reports and an even greater decline in less serious offenses. "For the first few days, we had no one sitting in detention," Price recalls.
Price says he's witnessed a change not just in student attitudes. "If you ask the teachers, they'll say their perception of the child has changed," he explains. "If students are wearing baggy pants and earrings, some teachers can't get past that."
In Long Beach, meanwhile, the third-largest district in California with almost 95,000 students, the uniform policy started with a bang, as crime in K-8 schools dropped by 22 percent and attendance increased to a record 95 percent in its first years. Over the past three years, the district has reported higher student test scores in reading and math.
Should Uniforms Get Credit For Improvements?
These success stories are developing against a backdrop of research suggesting the impact of a school uniform may be more a matter of perception than reality. "The research says it doesn't hurt, and it doesn't help," notes University of Missouri sociologist David Brunsma, whose studies of large educational databases show that uniforms do not improve academic achievement, or for that matter, student behavior or self-image.
The findings, recently published in Brunsma's The School Uniform Movement and What it Tells Us About American Education, used the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, which has focused on the progress of students who were preschoolers in 1998. The report also used the 1988 National Educational Longitudinal Study, which followed eighth graders throughout their school careers.
Brunsma links gains in student achievement and behavior to other school improvement programs. The lesson, he adds, is to keep the impact of school uniforms in perspective.
"If a school wants to implement a uniform policy because it looks good, that's fine," he concludes. "But if the community is expecting that policy to impact the very things they care about, the research shows they may be disappointed."
Those committed to school uniforms agree that changing student appearance has not made a difference by itself. "All along, we've said that uniforms were involved in a comprehensive approach that required higher standards, not just in dress, but in discipline and academic achievement," emphasizes Chris Eftychiou, a spokesman for the Long Beach Unified School District.
Aycock Principal Price is implementing a four-pronged plan that includes teacher development, character education, increased academic standards and uniforms. "The data is just overwhelmingly showing improvement," he insists, in no small part because of the new uniform policy. "How do you measure the feeling students have when they're dressed this way?"
And while he's not running a controlled experiment, Price points out that student behavior on "dress down" days once a month differs noticeably. "Students are more defiant," he observes. "They're more aggressive and push in the hallways. They revert to the behaviors of last year."
Aycock, meanwhile, offers a textbook lesson in adopting and implementing a uniform policy. Price started with informational town hall meetings in the fall of 2003. "We listened to parents who wanted a safe environment and one better suited to learning," he says. "Then we worked with our staff leadership team to figure out how to get there."
A subsequent telephone survey of all parents revealed that 86 percent favored a comprehensive school improvement plan, including the introduction of student uniforms. More town hall meetings followed to preview the program and reminder phone calls and letters went out between March and August, 2004, as well as a list of nine uniform vendors.
"On the first day of school, about 20 or 30 kids were not dressed up," Price recalls. "We pulled them off the bus and put them in a room where we had spare uniforms waiting. We dressed them and sent them to class."
Price also provided for families that could not afford the required clothing. Many schools with uniform requirements do the same, either through special funds, arrangements with vendors, or a free collection of slightly worn uniforms donated from older students.
"We have a fund so that if a family truly can't afford to buy clothes, they will meet with our social workers, and we will buy them two or three outfits," says Cahokia's Jed Deets. These parents are reminded that future clothing purchases for their children should pay attention to the school uniform policy.
Dealing With Protests
Whatever your level of readiness, Deets warns, be prepared for some trouble at the start. "In the first year of the high school uniform program, we had students walking out in protest, and parents would organize other protests because they thought we were taking away their constitutional rights," he recalls.
"We had some students who were very defiant and came every day out of uniform--as opposite to the uniform policy as they could be. For the first two weeks we were very tolerant, but after that, we communicated to parents that their children would be sent home if they didn't come in the proper uniform. We fought those battles the first year, and the last three years have gone relatively smoothly."
"Parent support is key," adds Long Beach's Eftychiou. "Where uniforms have been successful, parents are on board and are, in fact, a driving force." Even though the California state education code allows parents to opt out of uniform requirements, only 2 percent in Long Beach have done so and a large number now support the new high school uniforms.
While most districts entertain waiver requests--for religious reasons, for instance--Deets denies most of them. "If you allow parents to choose whether to conform to the policy, then you won't have a policy," he says.
A case in point is Sierra Vista Junior High School in California. Three years ago the school abandoned the uniform policy for its 1,100 students. "We had well over a hundred parents that opted out," reports Principal Randy Parker. "Once you get past a critical mass of waivers, it becomes a nightmare trying to keep track. It became a point of contention when kids in uniform saw others who weren't wearing uniforms. It became a 'non-uniform'-uniform policy."
The school has since switched to a dress code, which requires shoes or sandals and clothes that conceal all undergarments. The code also bans baggy pants, hats and sunglasses. "Parents can't opt out of that," Parker says.
Other schools from California and Utah to Florida and New Hampshire have dropped their uniform requirements, largely because of parental resistance. But there aren't many discouraging words about uniforms in Cahokia, Ill., or Lawrence, Mass.
"Right now, I think my parents would raise a huge protest if we drew back the policy," muses Cahokia's Deets. And even though parents in Lawrence can opt out of school uniforms, Superintendent Laboy points to a different kind of peer pressure among students who once tried to keep up with each other's designer outfits.
"Every child wants to belong to a larger group," Laboy says. "If in a classroom of 28, 21 students may be wearing uniforms, the other students begin to look around and say, 'Hey, we're not part of the larger group.' And they say, 'I want my uniform because all the other kids are wearing it.' "
Ron Schachter is a contributing editor.