Anti-Uniforms Essay

My daughter’s school uniform, required by the public magnet middle school where she began sixth grade last week, is perfectly nice. It’s not so much a single uniform as a broad wardrobe of coördinated prep-wear: skirts or pants, paired with piqué polo shirts, all in “goldenrod yellow,” navy, or white, topped off by a fleece zip-up (on which the school crest is optional). For her first day, she chose the navy skirt with the white polo. As she walked to the corner to catch the bus, I was reminded of a time when our schools were orderly, our teachers respected, and our children all above average.

That was an imaginary time, of course, but nostalgia for it has helped to create the modern school-uniform movement, which has won the kind of broad—indeed, nearly uniform—support that exists for no other educational policy, or social policy, that one can think of. Although there isn’t a scholarly consensus that uniforms do anything to improve student achievement or school climate, about one-fifth of all public-school students now wear them. They are one of the few interventions on which charter-school advocates and anti-charter activists agree.

Even the students have gone along, in one of the great surrenderings of liberty in modern history. For, although we think of uniforms as a reclamation of the olden days, they are relatively new in this country. Against British Commonwealth traditions, we were the free and easy New World, the country where children dressed themselves. For the most part, the appearance of students was governed only by the nagging of parents (“Get a haircut!”); informal norms (T-shirts were for athletics, not the school day); and deference to teachers and principals, who had wide discretion to tell a boy that he looked like a hoodlum, or tell a girl that her hemline was inappropriately short.

In the sixties, students fought for more autonomy in dress, to signal allegiance to a particular band or clique or general attitude toward the world. They saw dress as a mode of expression in schoolyard politics, and in world politics: in 1969, in Tinker v. Des Moines, the Supreme Court upheld high-school students’ rights to wear black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. That case was the capstone for an emerging jurisprudence of freedom-in-attire, coming after court decisions in New York and Idaho striking down bans on women wearing pants, and a decision in New Hampshire ending a ban on bluejeans. These cases helped solidify a trend toward more freedom for young people to dress how they wished. And so it was, from the nineteen-seventies into my childhood, in the nineteen-eighties.

Then Bill Clinton happened. In 1996, Clinton, running for reëlection and eager to shore up his conservative credentials, championed mandatory school uniforms “as the kind of small-bore, low-cost, common-sense policy initiative that might appeal to a broad cross-section of voters,” as the legal scholars Deborah M. Ahrens and Andrew M. Siegel write, in their forthcoming paper “Reconsidering the Constitutionality of Student Dress Restrictions.” Clinton plugged uniforms in his State of the Union address that year and had his Department of Education issue a manual for schools that were transitioning to require uniforms. While some schools had experimented with uniforms in the eighties and nineties, it’s clear, Ahrens and Siegel argue, that “the modern enthusiasm for uniforms can be traced pretty directly to the 1996 Clinton administration initiative.”

Expecting some pushback, the Department of Education issued guidelines for making the new uniform policies able to withstand lawsuits. Except the free-expression lawsuits never came. As with other policies favored by conservatives, such as law-and-order policing and mass incarceration, Clinton’s support gave cover to liberals, desperate for any policies that might help the inner cities, to join the act. As one might expect, school uniforms, while growing in popularity everywhere, have really become a feature of poor schools. According to a 2016 study by the National Center for Education Statistics, school uniforms are required at fifty-three percent of schools where three-quarters of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch. But, of schools where fewer than a quarter of students are so eligible, only four per cent require uniforms.

These uniforms have become a rich revenue source for kiddie-clothing companies like French Toast, which has a verbose Web site dedicated to their magical properties. One typical section makes the argument that “school uniforms bring an image of success to students and teachers.” But that depends how one defines success. In Silicon Valley, on Ivy League campuses, and even in a growing number of white-shoe firms, the rule is to dress down. While once upon a time each profession had its uniform—the gray-flannel suit, the white coat—today, the most successful people wear what they want, especially in the more creative industries.

On the Web site for my daughter’s school, the hyperlink “Click here for more information about student uniforms!” redirects to Lands’ End. Once known for its middle-quality oxford button-downs, Lands’ End has become a major player in the school-uniform game, and not by accident. It has aggressively formed partnerships with school systems, often becoming their main uniform purveyor, and it has helped fund some of the questionable research adduced to show that uniforms improve schools. In 2013, Lands’ End helped pay for a survey by the National Association of Elementary School Principals that found that eighty-five per cent of principals “and other school leaders” believed that uniforms improved classroom discipline.

Many school leaders believe that uniforms help, although they can’t seem to agree on why. It’s student achievement, or “school pride,” or a perceived reduction in fighting. When independent researchers have tried to quantify such claims, they have had mixed results. One widely cited study, on schools in Long Beach, California, showed a decrease in school crime after the introduction of uniforms, but the city had taken many other measures to reduce violence at the same time, so it’s hard to tease out how much uniforms mattered. Many studies show no change in school culture, and some even show negative results: in one 2007 study, the introduction of uniforms accompanied an increase in the average number of assaults in one district’s violent schools.

One good friend of mine, a superintendent of a charter-school network, who spoke to me off the record, swears that introducing uniforms where he works changed the culture overnight, increased respect, and improved students’ ability to learn. He may be right. And, if uniforms are viewed positively by students, parents, and administrators alike—as they are—then it can seem precious to object to them. To some extent, enthusiasm about school culture is a good in itself; even if it doesn’t yield higher test scores or graduation rates, perhaps it leads to better teacher retention or recruitment. Maybe the aesthetics of color-coördinated order just make everyone in the building happier. One 2002 study of Texas middle-school students found that those in uniform had a stronger sense of “belonging” in their school community. That’s worth something.

But, so long as the evidence for these claims is thin, I am more concerned about what we know to be true: that uniforms are yet one more way that the surveillance of the un-powerful—the poor, people of color, and that great unheard group of the young—has become increasingly acceptable. “Campuses increasingly subject students to police surveillance techniques, including drug-sniffing dogs, metal detectors, surveillance cameras, random sweeps for contraband including bag searches, and drug tests,” Ahrens and Siegel write. As students become “proper subjects for policing,” they argue, it’s no surprise that we presume to tell them what to wear.

Uniforms can be liberating, in the way that the absence of choice is. My daughter is only a few days into her school year, yet she already says that uniforms simplify her morning. But, as our society reckons once more with the costs and burdens of free expression, we should remember that not so long ago teen-agers fought for their right to black armbands. While in theory the right to such overt political expression—the armband, the political button or patch—would still be upheld by courts, the spirit behind that freedom has disappeared. We’ve stopped thinking of our sons and daughters as citizens whose independence we want to cultivate by, as much as possible, getting out of the way.

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