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As students head back to school in September, USA Today Education Beat writer Greg Toppo recently reported that more American students than ever before will arrive dressed in a school-sanctioned uniforms.  Over the past decade, the adoption of school dress codes and uniforms in American public schools has expanded, even though the evidence of its impact on improving schools remains inconclusive.  In Canada, school uniforms are popular in independent private schools, but — with the exception of Quebec and Catholic high schools — still remain relatively scarce in regular co-educational public high schools.

MrDXavierAcademyNearly one in five American public schools required uniforms in 2010, up from just 1 in 8 a decade earlier, according to U. S. Department of Education statistics.  That’s a whopping 60% growth in uniform requirements in American state schools.  Boring deeper, more than half of public schools now have some sort of dress code.  The National Center for Education Statistics reports that about 57% of school now have a “strict dress code,” up from 47% a decade earlier.  Comparable statistics do not exist for Canadian schools, given the provincial education silos, but school uniforms are more prevalent as a result of the gradual spread of private and publicly-funded alternative schools.  It is no accident. for instance, that the mythical Xavier Academy in the CBC-TV sitcom Mr. D. features scrubbed kids in very traditional school uniforms.

School uniforms have a chequered history in North American education.  Private independent schools associated with the Canadian Association of Independent Schools (CAIS), and, to a lesser extent, the U.S. National Association of Independent Schools, have long championed school uniforms, even though some of their member schools have adhered to more relaxed dress codes.  In Quebec, school uniforms are far more common, influenced by the classical Quebec private colleges and Montreal’s English independent schools.  In Ontario and other provinces, publicly-funded Catholic Separate Schools have tended to maintain school-approved uniforms, ranging from jackets and ties to crested collared white polo shirts.

The idea of introducing school uniforms into the public schools enjoyed an upsurge in the 1980s and early 1990s.   In the 1980s, Washington’s Mayor Marion Barry attempted to introduce uniforms to close the performance gap between public school students and those in D.C.’s Catholic schools.   While the D.C. plan fizzled, in 1987, Cherry Hill Elementary School in Baltimore, MD, introduced what is believed to be the first school-wide uniform policy as “a means of  reducing  clothing costs and social pressures on children.”  Nine years later (1996), speaking in Long Beach, California, President Bill Clinton announced his support of that district’s uniform initiative: “School uniforms are one step that may help break the cycle of violence, truancy and disorder by helping young students understand what really counts is what kind of people they are,” Clinton said,  With this presidential nod of approval, more schools and school districts began to adopt school uniforms and stricter dress codes.

School uniforms were given a boost in Canada by the emergence in the 1980s and early 1990s of an “Academy Movement” in the public school system.  In Montreal, the decline in the English population after the Quebec Referendum played a role in the 1983 establishment of Royal West Academy and Royal Vale School, both public-private hybrid schools with uniforms and entrance examinations.  The Toronto School Board, facing competition from local private and Catholic schools, moved in 1989 to transform Scarborough’s near empty R.H. King High School into an Academy with traditional teaching, formal uniforms, and formal daily student mentoring groups.  Two years later, in September 1991, the York Region School Board did the same, establishing Woodbridge College as a traditional Grade 7 to OAC/13 school with a rigorous curriculum, uniforms, and more structured learning.  While many of these experiments faltered because of system-wide resistance and aenemic leadership, they did leave a symbolic legacy in the form of uniformed students.

Introducing school uniforms is sure to spark a raging public debate in public education, even in the United Kingdom where uniformed schoolkids are ubiquitous..  A recent piece in EduGuide provided a very handy summary of the arguments, pro and con, over the adoption of school-sanctioned, formal uniforms:

The Possible Benefits, commonly voiced by educators as well as parents:

  • Increase students’ self-esteem because they do not have to participate in the “school fashion show.” Dressing alike helps students learn that what really counts is on the inside.
  • Decrease the influence of gangs and gang violence. Uniforms make it more difficult to sneak in weapons, and easier to ban gang colors or symbols.
  • Improve learning by reducing distraction, sharpening focus on schoolwork and making the classroom a more serious environment.
  • Promote a sense of teamwork and increase school spirit.
  • Mask the income difference between families. All children dress the same, whether rich or poor.
  • Improve behavior and increase school attendance. Some students actually skip school to avoid embarrassment about their clothing.
  • Save families time and money. Many parents report that three uniforms cost about the same as one pair of designer jeans. Even some students admit that wearing the same colors everyday makes it easier to shop for new clothes.
  • Help administrators quickly identify outsiders who could be a danger to students.

The Downside, usually expressed by high school students and parents:

  • Violate the right to freedom of speech and expression.
  • Cost too much for families who already struggle to make ends meet.
  • Merely put a band-aid on the problem of school violence and fail to address the real issues behind it.
  • Emphasize conformity, not individuality, and do not allow students to develop their identity.
  • Hide warning signs that point to problems. Often the way a child dresses can indicate the way he is feeling. Uniforms eliminate these red flags.
  • Offer ways for administrators to exert power and an unnecessary amount of authority.
  • Have not been statistically proven to decrease violence or promote discipline.
  • Fail to allow students to learn to make good choices based on their own values.

Much has been made of the school-based research that supposedly shows school uniforms do not necessarily improve schools or student performance levels. One particular American book, David Brunsma’s The School Uniform Movement and What It Tells Us About American Education (2004) is routinely trotted out to support this claim.  Defenders of uniforms counter with  Virginia Draa’s 2005 study of 64 Ohio high schools linking uniforms with improved attendance and  graduation rates and fewer student suspensions.  Neither study demonstrated much impact on student academic performance.

School uniforms, as supporters of dress codes well know, mean little unless they are embedded in a school culture that affirms and supports the pursuit of high standards and improved academic performance.  Studying public schools that climb on the school uniform bandwagon proves little and the American public school world is littered with bad precedents.  In Canada, experiments like Woodbridge College go awry when the missionary leaders move on and school boards revert to “every day garden variety” progressive pedagogy and practice in schools with very average, uniformed kids.  Studying schools with Uniforms Plus higher standards, sound core curriculum, character education, structured learning, and compulsory athletics or cultural activities would likely produce far different results.

Do school uniforms, by themselves, make schools better?  Is the adoption of school uniforms in North American public schools largely symbolic rather than transformative?  Is it possible to maintain a strict school dress code without turning kids into uniform thinkers?  What would a broader study pitting traditional school methods, including uniforms, against progressive, student-centred methods actually prove, if anything?

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