I'm catching up on posting East Side Monthly columns! Here's what I wrote for the November 2011 issue, which isn't online due to ESM's spiffy website makeover, which features content from December 2011 onward (and I didn't write for that issue due to work craziness). I am back at it - January's ESM education column is on equity and school facilities and should be out soon. But for now - here's November's column on school uniforms and whether they're right for Providence's public schools, along with my thanks to the people who gave me their time and thoughts on the subject.
At a recent citywide gathering of parents with children in the Providence Public Schools, I found myself in the minority when the subject of school uniforms arose. First off, in order to establish my minority position, I will share that I’m not in favor of mandatory uniforms, especially in public schools. That’s not to say that I don’t want kids to look their best. Clearly stated and consistently enforced dress codes create an atmosphere for learning with minimal distraction while still allowing for choice and free expression, and the Providence Public Schools’ dress code is a fine example. However, most other parents in whose company I found myself spoke up enthusiastically for school uniforms. Their kids and their peers would benefit tremendously from school uniforms, they said as they urged the Providence Public Schools to make uniforms mandatory in all schools.
The overwhelmingly positive response from parents from across the city made me reconsider my own anti-uniform stance. What was so attractive about the idea of school uniforms in all of our public schools--and why didn’t I share that view?
Those who support mandatory school uniforms believe that uniforms emphasize to young people that they are at school to learn. Christina Murphy Pyman, a past Vartan Gregorian Elementary School at Fox Point parent, sums up what many in favor of school uniforms believe. “Uniforms are especially good for girls, who seem to be obsessed with how they look and what label they are wearing at a frighteningly young age,” notes Pyman. “They need to learn that it isn't how you look but what you can accomplish and they need to learn to focus! Wearing the right jeans when they grow up will not land them the job they want in the real world.”
Some uniform proponents argue that mandatory school uniforms correlate with a safer school culture and that uniforms can help students feel like they’re part of a team, which can increase a sense of school pride. Others say it’s just easier to get dressed in the morning. Allyson Seaborn, a friend who grew up in the United States (without school uniforms) and moved to Australia in high school, shared that all Australian public and private school students wear uniforms, and she is a major proponent of mandatory uniforms for school. “Honestly, as a parent I send my two kids off to school each day without any whinging, fashion planning, colour coordination of socks, or my daughter looking like a tart,” she explains. “They just go to school to learn. Uniforms are about making school years a little bit easier and more practical.” Seaborn’s thoughts resonated with Hope High School teacher Laura Maxwell, who while not endorsing uniforms, commented that uniforms would reduce the “decision fatigue” that is a significant factor in our lives.
Not such a big surprise, then, that school uniforms are such an appealing idea. However, they aren’t a sartorial panacea that will fix what’s ailing a school. Do dress codes eliminate distractions and put the focus on learning? Probably not. Research indicates that academic outcomes aren’t improved at schools with uniforms as compared to schools with similar populations and programs. Dr. Corey D. B. Walker, chair of Brown University’s Africana Studies department and president of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School’s Parent-Teacher Organization, suggests that insisting on compliance to a uniform policy may well be a distraction to learning. “Administrators and communities should focus their energy on providing adequate resources so that schools can do what they do best--educate our children,” Walker says. “Since we have no reliable data to support all the ‘good’ that school uniforms do, we should focus our energy on ensuring that all schools have the requisite resources to serve all students in the pursuit of achieving the best of their potential.”
Others with experience wearing school uniforms as students feel that the uniforms put them or their kids at a real disadvantage. Providence Public School parent Karen Seiler recalls, “As someone who wore a uniform to school I can tell you they accomplish none of the supposed benefits. Students distinguish their wealth, status, and cliques through hairstyle, jewelry, shoes, and so on.” Another friend whose children attended a charter school with a strictly enforced uniform policy was plagued by the anxiety of getting the uniform up to snuff in the mornings and the inevitable loss of time in schools (and loss of work for her) when her kids were sent home for noncompliance. Uniforms established an anxiety about school in terms of fitting in and meeting expectations that her kids are still sorting through, years later.
School uniforms represent what many families want for their kids and their schools: a calm, orderly, focused learning environment, and therein lies their appeal. But the challenges that face us as we work to create great schools for all children are complex, and the solutions require a parallel level of complexity and nuance. Dr. Corey D. B. Walker takes the point further, noting, “The discourse on school uniforms strikes me as emblematic of the problem of public school education in our nation--the simplistic pursuit of a single remedy to alleviate the systemic problems that have been and continue to be part of the history of public education in America.”
When we talk about schools, we often fail to make the distinction between standards and standardization. A dress code represents standards; a uniform, standardization. The consequences to insisting on standardization in a multicultural society are significant, as Walker suggests. “School uniforms imperially impose a Euro-centric norm and conception of proper conduct and behavior that is antithetical to a society that claims to value cultural diversity.” While public and charter schools, which are not required to educate any and all students, may well benefit from mandatory uniform policies, uniforms don’t have a meaningful place in our public schools. With respect to those who are in favor, I hope to work together with educators and students to create places of learning where high standards and personal freedom can coexist.