The Downsides of School Uniforms

Many school leaders believe that uniforms help, although they can’t seem to agree on why.

Photograph by Cynthia Johnson / The LIFE Images Collection / Getty

My daughter’s school uniform, required by the public magnet middle
school where she began sixth grade last week, is perfectly nice. It’s not so much a single uniform as a broad wardrobe of
coördinated prep-wear: skirts or pants, paired with piqué polo shirts,
all in “goldenrod yellow,” navy, or white, topped off by a fleece
zip-up (on which the school crest is optional). For her first day, she
chose the navy skirt with the white polo. As she walked to the corner to
catch the bus, I was reminded of a time when our schools were orderly,
our teachers respected, and our children all above average.

That was an imaginary time, of course, but nostalgia for it has helped to create the modern school-uniform movement, which has won the kind of broad—indeed, nearly uniform—support that exists for no other
educational policy, or social policy, that one can think of.
Although there isn’t a scholarly consensus that uniforms do anything to
improve student achievement or school climate, about one-fifth of all
public-school students now wear them. They are one of the few
interventions on which charter-school advocates and anti-charter
activists agree.

Even the students have gone along, in one of the great surrenderings of
liberty in modern history. For, although we think of uniforms as a
reclamation of the olden days, they are relatively new in this country. Against British
Commonwealth traditions, we were the free and easy New World, the
country where children dressed themselves. For the most part, the
appearance of students was governed only by the nagging of parents (“Get
a haircut!”); informal norms (T-shirts were for athletics, not the
school day); and deference to teachers and principals, who had wide
discretion to tell a boy that he looked like a hoodlum, or tell a girl that
her hemline was inappropriately short.

In the sixties, students fought for more autonomy in dress, to signal
allegiance to a particular band or clique or general attitude toward the
world. They saw dress as a mode of expression in schoolyard politics,
and in world politics: in 1969, in Tinker v. Des Moines, the Supreme
Court upheld high-school students’ rights to wear black armbands to
protest the Vietnam War. That case was the capstone for an emerging
jurisprudence of freedom-in-attire, coming after court decisions in New
York and Idaho striking down bans on women wearing pants, and
a decision in New Hampshire ending a ban on bluejeans. These cases
helped solidify a trend toward more freedom for young people to dress
how they wished. And so it was, from the nineteen-seventies into my
childhood, in the nineteen-eighties.

Then Bill Clinton happened. In 1996, Clinton, running for reëlection and eager to
shore up his conservative credentials, championed mandatory
school uniforms “as the kind of small-bore, low-cost, common-sense
policy initiative that might appeal to a broad cross-section of voters,”
as the legal scholars Deborah M. Ahrens and Andrew M. Siegel write, in
their forthcoming paper “Reconsidering the Constitutionality of Student
Dress Restrictions.” Clinton plugged uniforms in his State of the Union
address that year and had his Department of Education issue a manual for
schools that were transitioning to require uniforms. While some schools
had experimented with uniforms in the eighties and nineties, it’s clear,
Ahrens and Siegel argue, that “the modern enthusiasm for uniforms can be
traced pretty directly to the 1996 Clinton administration initiative.”

Expecting some pushback, the Department of Education issued guidelines
for making the new uniform policies able to withstand lawsuits. Except
the free-expression lawsuits never came. As with other policies favored
by conservatives, such as law-and-order policing and mass incarceration,
Clinton’s support gave cover to liberals, desperate for any policies that
might help the inner cities, to join the act. As one might expect,
school uniforms, while growing in popularity everywhere, have really
become a feature of poor schools. According to a 2016 study by the
National Center for Education Statistics, school uniforms are required
at fifty-three percent of schools where three-quarters of students are
eligible for free or reduced lunch. But, of schools where fewer than a quarter
of students are so eligible, only four per cent require uniforms.

These uniforms have become a rich revenue source for kiddie-clothing
companies like French Toast, which has a verbose Web site dedicated to
their magical properties. One typical section makes the argument that
“school uniforms bring an image of success to students and teachers.”
But that depends how one defines success. In Silicon Valley, on Ivy League
campuses, and even in a growing number of white-shoe firms, the rule is to
dress down. While once upon a time each profession had its uniform—the
gray-flannel suit, the white coat—today, the most successful people wear
what they want, especially in the more creative industries.

On the Web site for my daughter’s school, the hyperlink “Click here for
more information about student uniforms!” redirects to Lands’ End. Once known for its middle-quality oxford button-downs, Lands’ End has
become a major player in the school-uniform game, and not by accident.
It has aggressively formed partnerships with school systems, often
becoming their main uniform purveyor, and it has helped fund some of the
questionable research adduced to show that uniforms improve schools. In
2013, Lands’ End helped pay for a survey by the National Association of Elementary School Principals that found that eighty-five per cent
of principals “and other school leaders” believed that uniforms improved
classroom discipline.

Many school leaders believe that uniforms help, although they can’t seem
to agree on why. It’s student achievement, or “school pride,” or a
perceived reduction in fighting. When independent researchers have tried
to quantify such claims, they have had mixed results. One widely cited
study, on schools in Long Beach, California, showed a decrease in school
crime after the introduction of uniforms, but the city had taken many other measures to reduce violence at the same time, so it’s hard to
tease out how much uniforms mattered. Many studies show no change in
school culture, and some even show negative results: in one 2007 study,
the introduction of uniforms accompanied an increase in the average number of assaults in one district’s violent schools.

One good friend of mine, a superintendent of a charter-school network,
who spoke to me off the record, swears that introducing uniforms where
he works changed the culture overnight, increased respect, and improved
students’ ability to learn. He may be right. And, if uniforms are viewed
positively by students, parents, and administrators alike—as they are—then it can seem precious to object to them. To some extent, enthusiasm about school culture is a good in itself; even if it doesn’t yield
higher test scores or graduation rates, perhaps it leads to better
teacher retention or recruitment. Maybe the aesthetics of
color-coördinated order just make everyone in the building happier. One
2002 study of Texas middle-school students found that those in uniform
had a stronger sense of “belonging” in their school community. That’s worth something.

But, so long as the evidence for these claims is thin, I am more
concerned about what we know to be true: that uniforms are yet one more
way that the surveillance of the un-powerful—the poor, people of color,
and that great unheard group of the young—has become increasingly
acceptable. “Campuses increasingly subject students to police
surveillance techniques, including drug-sniffing dogs, metal detectors,
surveillance cameras, random sweeps for contraband including bag
searches, and drug tests,” Ahrens and Siegel write. As students
become “proper subjects for policing,” they argue, it’s no surprise that
we presume to tell them what to wear.

Uniforms can be liberating, in the way that the absence of choice is. My
daughter is only a few days into her school year, yet she already says
that uniforms simplify her morning. But, as our society reckons once more
with the costs and burdens of free expression, we should remember that
not so long ago teen-agers fought for their right to black armbands.
While in theory the right to such overt political expression—the
armband, the political button or patch—would still be upheld by courts,
the spirit behind that freedom has disappeared. We’ve stopped thinking
of our sons and daughters as citizens whose independence we want to
cultivate by, as much as possible, getting out of the way.