Education Opinion

Student Attire Is Still Controversial

By Walt Gardner — June 12, 2017 1 min read
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You’d think that the last thing school officials have to worry about today is what students wear (“Jeans Aren’t Allowed at School - Unless you Pay,” The Wall Street Journal, Jun. 6). But you’d be wrong.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about 20 percent of public schools had some type of uniform requirement in the 2013-14 school year. The rationale is that school uniforms allow students to focus on instruction rather than on competition to buy trendy clothes. Uniforms also eliminate wearing T-shirts with controversial statements emblazoned on the chest or back.

However, there’s a difference between school uniforms and student dress codes. The former is much stricter but easier to enforce than the latter. I vividly remember the late 1960s when the high school where I spent my entire teaching career attempted to implement a dress code. The administration finally gave up when it was forced to spend almost the entire school day sending students home for violations. Girls wore miniskirts that they rolled up or down, depending on whether they were in class or summoned to the principal’s office.

School uniforms are much less subjective. But unless school officials first get buy-in from parents, either policy is doomed to failure. I think the key is to show a direct link between school attire and student performance. Unless that can be demonstrated, the entire strategy will be counterproductive.

Private and religious schools have far more latitude than traditional public schools in their policies. Parents who choose to send their children there know beforehand what is expected. Because public schools are the schools of last resort, they have to enroll all who show up at their doors and have to prove that their dress policies are justified. If not, they are setting themselves up for a lawsuit about the right of students to free speech and free expression.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.