I wore a school uniform for eight years, and, for the most part, it worked for me. I jumped out of bed at the last possible minute, threw on the same outfit as the previous day, grabbed breakfast and went to school.
While it’s been more than 25 years, I occasionally mourn that ease and convenience.
The downside of wearing a uniform was that I had no idea how to dress myself once I got to college. I spent a couple years zigzagging among various styles: college prepster, vintage hippie chick, and a 80s Goth look that luckily evaded the photographic record. Of course, my sisters will tell you that I never really learned to dress myself, and they’re probably right.
There are two reasons I’m thinking about school uniforms these days. One is that my daughter will soon attend an independent school where uniforms are mandatory. Two is that Randolph Learning Center now requires uniforms for their students — a first in the Asheville City Schools system.
A task force has been studying the issue of uniforms for several months. Randolph is their guinea pig. The school board approved the change in June. The task force will continue to discuss whether or not uniforms should become de rigueur for the other city schools. As part of the process, the task force organized community forums to discuss “standardized dress” and its potential impact on attendance, discipline, academic achievement, and overall school safety.
While I neglected to attend any of the forums, I did slog through the 20-page “Asheville City Schools Uniform Dress Research Compilation” paper (you too can download it from their Web site).
Part of the reasoning behind uniform dress seems to be to improve student behavior. To my mind, if kids want to misbehave, they’ll figure out a way to do so regardless of what they’re wearing or not wearing. Also, there’s no real evidence that uniforms improve attendance or academic achievement. There’s some possibility that crime in schools may decrease, as kids are less likely to steal each other’s sneakers and other “status” items (the school safety part of the equation). This is based on studies done on uniformed school systems in California, Texas and elsewhere.
There is a positive correlation between what I call “team mentality” and uniforms. People often dress a certain way to fit in or to feel a sense of belonging. You know what I’m talking about — wearing a suit to a business meeting or job interview, flaunting your Tourists gear at McCormick Field, or pulling on a tie-dyed skirt to attend that West Asheville potluck.
Supposedly, when kids dress the same, they’re more likely to identify with being on the same “team.” To my mind, this may be the best reason for standardized dress — it’s a decent way to pull together kids from diverse backgrounds and communities and get them to work together, even if only for part of the time.
There is concern that uniform violations are one more disciplinary issue for teachers and administrators to handle, though my guess is that dealing with existing dress codes rules like no hats and no “revealing” clothing already takes up time (we would roll up the waistbands of our Lolitaesque pleated uniform skirts until they barely covered our thighs when I was in high school — in other words, kids are going to find a way to be “creative”).
And what about the cost? The task force’s assessment intimates that uniforms cost less than regular school clothing. But how much parents spend on kid clothing is hugely variable. If most of your kids’ clothes are hand-me-downs or Goodwill finds, a mandatory uniform policy could be tough on your budget.
Skeptics also dislike the idea of quashing kids’ individuality by forcing them into uniforms. This argument doesn’t work for me any more than the truancy one does. Sure, you can express yourself in some ways by what you wear, but you aren’t what you wear.
Of course, I occasionally fall for what the billion-dollar fashion industry tells me will make me cooler, sexier, or a better person. But it’s not true. That comes from within, not from without.
Overall, I support school uniforms mostly for their ease. Not having to fight with my daughter about what she’s wearing should ease our mornings this year. And I’m interested to see if the Randolph experiment expands to include other city schools. Finally, if the task force gathers evidence showing that Randolph attendance and academic performance increase this year while disciplinary actions and crime decrease, I’ll jump all the way on the standardized dress bandwagon.