Radio Freethinker

Vancouver's Number 1 Skeptical Podcast and Radio Show

Back to School: Uniforms that is

Posted by Jenna Capyk on September 13, 2011

As the nation’s children start out a new school year, many have laid out their clothes for the first week, (or the first month) so as to best display their new wardrobe. Many others are slipping on the same jeans and t-shirts they wore last year. The very industrious/creative/desperate are slicing up the same jeans and t-shirts they wore last year to make them look like a new wardrobe. There is also a separate category of school kids donning their backpacks to head off and pick up some knowledge: those clad in mandatory clothing lovingly picked out by their very own school officials. That’s right, we’re talking about school uniforms. Although it might be easy to limit the discussion to plaid skirts and white socks, we’re going to take this in a slightly more mathematical direction to talk about the real effect of school uniforms, statistically speaking.

To uniform or not to uniform, that is the age-old debate that has arisen in schools ever since the first un-uniformed schools started to emerge. Given the interest so many parties have in the future of our collective youth it is not surprising that many views and theories have been brought to the table on both sides of the debate. On the pro-uniform side, the concept of neutralizing school atmospheres has been one of the prevailing motivations for strapping ties around the necks of our youngsters. The theory here is that if everyone looks more or less the same, then no one stands out as financially disadvantaged, having poor style sense, belonging to a specific cultural or social group, etc. This argument has also been used in consideration of gang or pre-gang affiliations. By painting everyone with the same brush, so to speak, proponents of this theory hope to cut down on appearance-related peer pressure, labeling, and bullying. The opponents of school uniforms, on the other hand, argue that this same plaid-washing stifles creativity and removes a much-needed outlet for children to express themselves and establish a personal identity.

A less nebulous and more quantifiable, if arguably less significant, argument is that uniforms cut down on the amount of time it takes students to get dressed in the morning. This, of course, is leveled more toward female students, and for me conjures up Clueless-esque images of Cher taking Polaroids in front of a revolving closet. Nonetheless, some reports conclude that teenage girls can take in excess of an hour to ready themselves to be seen by their peers, a process that could quite possibly be reduced by forced fashion.

Another set of opposing uniform theories centres around the idea of discipline and general school atmosphere. Opponents of uniform policies assert that forcing children into creased pants and buttoned collars will force them to rebel in more serious ways. This is the, “I have to wear this tie so I’m not going to do my homework,” theory. On the other side of the debate we have the, “I’m wearing this tie, guess I’m not a bad boy. I guess I don’t have to uphold that image, so I might as well go and do my homework,” argument. This is more or less the idea that the discipline implied by being surrounded by uniform-wearing peers bleeds into the student, instilling a desire to fit into this ordered world.

All of these ideas are pretty conjectural, and logical arguments can be made on both sides of the debate. To investigate the question further, let’s see what the numbers have to say. Given the raging debate in many a PAC meeting, it is surprising that there have not been a great number of formal studies investigating the efficacy of school uniforms in improving kids’ school life. Of the few studies that have been done, however, most show no significant effect on absenteeism, behavior, substance abuse, or academic performance. In interpreting these results there are also many data-acquisition puzzles to be considered that can meddle up the straight line of cause and effect with regard to uniforms and student outcomes. For example, schools with discipline problems to begin with are more apt to adopt uniforms. Also, parents who are more inclined to choose schools with uniforms are also more likely to influence their children’s outcomes in other ways, making the effect of uniforms hard to discern. Also, adoption of uniforms is not necessarily a cause of school environment so much as a reflection of the educational ideology of the school leadership. That is to say the principals and other school governance bodies who prefer more rigid educational strategies overall are more inclined to enforce uniform policies, again making it difficult to tease out the effect of the uniforms themselves.

A new study from the National Bureau of Education looked at schools in Massachusetts and tried to address some of the confounding factors inherent in this type of investigation. They included in their calculation models factors based on constant elements across the criterion categories and across time. This measure was in an attempt to normalize for factors discussed above, and therefore discern the effect of the uniforms themselves. Even with this new methodology, however, this study found basically the same result as previous studies;  they found school uniforms have almost no effect.

The two categories where improvement was found was in teacher retention in elementary schools and in student attendance in middle and high school categories. Apparently teacher attrition is a major problem in the school district examined, and teachers were found to be more likely to stay at their jobs teaching elementary school if their students were required to wear uniforms. Uniform adoption also increased attendance in older students, especially for female students. Given the arguments outlined above about girls taking hours to dress themselves this can of course be attributed to being able to catch the bus to school fully clothed (gently veiled sarcasm).

In the areas of disciplinary incidents, academic achievement, dropout rates, and students moving schools, however, the uniforms made no statistically significant improvement. That is to say that although the adoption of uniforms has practical and symbolic meanings and assumed outcomes for many, the actual outcomes for students and impacts on their future has once again been measured as nothing.

Although this study has been made public before formal peer review, the newer statistical methodology still seems to confirm previous efforts in this field, and serves to strengthen the academic consensus on the subject. This, of course, doesn’t preclude newer evidence changing the current paradigm if this new evidence proves to be scientifically convincing. For now, however, thousands of school children are trudging to school wearing their seemingly useless uniforms.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s