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Burden to Wear

Are school uniforms the solution to sagging student performance?

Burden to Wear
By Donna Burch

For decades, educators and politicians have praised the benefits of school uniforms, saying they boost academic performance, improve school climate, decrease disciplinary problems, save on clothing costs and eliminate fashion envy between the haves and the have-nots.

Locally, the Chesterfield, Henrico and Richmond school districts all have policies allowing individual schools to permit school uniforms if school officials and parents jointly feel they might be beneficial.

But very few schools in the immediate Richmond area have chosen to adopt school uniforms.

Some programs offered by the Chesterfield Technical Center, such as automotive and HVAC repair, require uniforms for reasons related to cleanliness and professionalism.

In Henrico, three elementary schools – Laburnum, Harvie and Arthur Ashe – have optional uniform policies, where students are encouraged to wear uniforms Mondays through Thursdays, with Fridays considered a casual day.

“It looks like half to less than half [of students] participate [by wearing uniforms],” says Andy Jenks, Henrico County Public Schools’ director of communications and public relations.

In Richmond, two schools utilize uniforms: Franklin Military Academy, which would be expected, and Patrick Henry Elementary School, one of the district’s charter schools.

Last June, several Richmond School Board members inquired about enacting a mandatory divisionwide uniform policy, but that idea was quickly shelved when they were reminded of the state’s guidelines pertaining to uniforms.

In 1996, Bill Bosher, the state’s superintendent of public instruction at the time, helped develop a set of guidelines at the request of the Virginia General Assembly.

The guidelines encourage school districts to include parents and the community whenever such policies might be under consideration. A one- to two-year planning and input period is suggested to allow extensive discussion between school officials, students, parents and any other interested parties.

The state also encourages school districts to enlist legal counsel since the issue of free speech often comes up as part of the debate against school uniforms.

The guidelines also clearly state that school districts cannot use public funds to purchase school uniforms, so other arrangements have to be made to address indigent families who may not have the funds to purchase uniforms for their children.

Faced with these guidelines, the Richmond School Board backed off of its interest in adopting a districtwide policy. Instead, members asked that all principals be made aware that uniforms are an option at all schools, allowed by both district and state policies.

The usage of school uniforms in public schools is growing. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the percentage of public schools with mandatory school uniform policies increased from 13 percent during the 2003-04 school year to 19 percent in 2011-12 (the latest data available). Among elementary schools, 20 percent have such policies, compared to only 12 percent of secondary (middle/high) schools.

That’s for good reason, says Dr. David L. Brunsma, professor of sociology at Virginia Tech.

“The school uniform issue, at heart, is really a children’s rights issue,” he says. “When you get closer to high school, you’re dealing with emerging adults, and it’s been more difficult to sort of run roughshod over them with such a policy that has no discernible benefits.”

After studying the research on school uniforms for the past 15 years, Brunsma has come to one chief conclusion: “Peer-reviewed studies that use nationally representative data sets find no empirical evidence of the benefits of school uniforms.”

In other words, there are plenty of school administrators and parents who say school uniforms make a positive difference in schools, but the actual research doesn’t back up their claims. (There are smaller studies that may show benefits, but they are flawed because of their small sample size, geographical limitations or other issues, Brunsma says.)

“There are all the anecdotes,” he says. “In the end, we just kind of go around and around and around on that. We really need to look at hard evidence. When you look at the data, whether it’s on attendance, school climate, school unity, academic achievement, interpersonal violence on campus … we can’t find any empirical evidence that there is any difference between students who attend schools that mandate uniforms and students who don’t, and yet, the anecdotes still tend to win the day.”

Locally, some school administrators say uniforms are beneficial.

“Anecdotal information provided by faculty indicate that behavior, concentration and the attitude of students is less than optimal on special dress-down days,” says Richard Davis III, Richmond Public Schools’ director of communications.
In Henrico, the opinion is similar.

“The feedback the schools receive is that it cuts back on peer pressure,” Jenks says. “It provided an option for families who were uncomfortable with whatever pressure they felt to buy the latest fads or fashions in those communities.

“Suspension rates have decreased over the past three years [districtwide],” he continues. “I don’t know that anyone is pointing to uniforms as a reason for a decrease in discipline, [but] it’s at least a possibility that it’s helped cut down on issues related to clothing.”

Harold Fitrer, adjunct professor of education at University of Richmond and president/CEO of Communities in Schools of Richmond, sees both sides of the issue.

“If I talk to people in school, it’s very split,” he says. “Some people think it does wonders, [and] some don’t. I don’t think it makes a significant difference either way.”

School uniform proponents sometimes point to the success of some private schools, which have required mandatory uniforms for generations.

But Fitrer doesn’t think that’s a fair comparison.

“The socioeconomics and [parent] engagement is so different,” he says. “[Private schools] preselect their students, and their students select them, and if things aren’t working out, they send you back to wherever you came from. That’s an option the public schools don’t have.”

Brunsma says there are some interesting trends among schools that implement school uniforms.

“One thing studies do show is that school uniforms are much more disproportionately implemented in the poorest communities in the U.S. and on racially ethnic student bodies, and those two things are kind of interesting to think about,” he says. “They are more likely to be implemented in elementary schools than high schools. Again, [it’s something] interesting to think about.”

The debate over school uniforms isn’t going away anytime soon, Brunsma says.

“I think it’s really important that we have really good sets of studies that can help schools and families and school districts make good decisions based on solid evidence,” he says.

Brunsma and his colleagues continue to update their findings based on new data.