A few days ago I was talking with a friend about school uniforms. "Back in my day," she lamented, "we didn't have the problems in school that we have now. Kids respected authority. They didn't talk back. They had to do their homework, and if they didn't, there were consequences. There was much more order. Sure, there were some fights, but the worst that happened was an occasional black eye. Nobody was shot or stabbed.
"And you know what else?" she added. "Back then we had to dress properly for school. Even if your school didn't have uniforms, you still had to wear clean and modest clothing. Nowadays the kids are sloppy in their dress, in their language and in their behavior. They're a bunch of spoiled brats. Even the teachers don't dress or behave like the authority figures they're supposed to be. No wonder our schools are in trouble!"
Many people share my friend's sentiments. In fact dozens of school districts are now adopting, or have already adopted, a dress code or uniforms. Research seems to show that in schools which have required uniforms, the students' attendance and achievement has improved, and the number of fights has decreased.
Note that I said the research SEEMS to show this. On closer examination, school uniforms and dress codes don't have nearly the impact that we assume.
The problem lies in how the bulk of the research was conducted. In studies where principals or parents were asked to describe their impressions about the new dress code, they would typically say things like, "Yeah, the kids are behaving much better and they are more focused on their schoolwork."
However, when researchers actually measured school attendance, achievement, number of fights and other indicators of good citizenship, the results were mixed. In some schools there was no difference between their pre-uniform days and after uniforms were introduced. In other schools things got worse. A few schools did show moderate improvements in test scores and behavior.
But even where there were improvements, we can't attribute these to dress code alone. It turns out that when schools adopted uniforms or dress codes, they also made other changes in how things were run. For example, they upgraded their curriculum, enforced rules more consistently, added better security measures and had more parent involvement. In fact, these other measures may well have had more of an impact than did the clothes.
If you are interested in reading a comprehensive review of the research (it's actually in readable English!) see this article by David Brunsma, a sociologist at the University of Alabama: http://www.geocities.com/school_uniforms/report2.html
You may be reading this and thinking, "I don't care what the studies say. I just KNOW that kids are more conscientious and better behaved when they dress neatly and modestly."
You're not alone in thinking this way. Research has shown that both students and teachers believe that students behave better and get better grades when they wear uniforms. This is called the "Halo effect." It refers to the fact that when we see one positive feature about a person, we tend to infer others. Therefore, if someone is well-dressed, we make additional positive assumptions about them - e.g., that they're conscientious and respectful.
Sometimes the halo effect can be misleading. Consider the corporate scoundrels who were exposed for defrauding their companies of billions of dollars. These guys were among the best-dressed folks in society!
In summary, we know that merely putting navy blue blazers on school kids will not transform them into model students. It is more important to provide an atmosphere where rules are clear and enforced; where expectations create attainable challenges; and where parents are involved in their children's education. These will boost our children's success far more than any uniform.
Copyright Pauline Wallin, Ph.D. 2003. All rights reserved
Pauline Wallin, Ph.D. is a psychologist in Camp Hill, PA, and author of "Taming Your Inner Brat: A Guide for Transforming Self-defeating Behavior" (Beyond Words Publishing, 2001)
Visit http://www.innerbrat.com for more information, and subscribe to her free, monthly Inner Brat Newsletter.