If, as Mark Twain once quipped, clothes make the man (his reasoning: “Naked people have little or no influence in society”), does it follow that the right attire can help a kid do better at school? Contrary to popular belief, the answer is no, says sociologist David Brunsma. The University of Missouri assistant professor recently published The School Uniform Movement and What It Tells Us About American Education: A Symbolic Crusade, which discusses the conclusion he’s reached after almost a decade’s worth of research and analysis of new federal data: School uniforms have no impact on student achievement or social behavior.
Brunsma never wore a school uniform himself, so this isn’t a personal vendetta against polyester and the people who made him wear it. He says he was motivated to conduct a scholarly investigation into the effects of uniforms because he was concerned that schools were changing policies based on anecdotes alone. Currently, about 23 percent of public elementary schools have mandatory-uniform policies.
Teacher Magazine recently spoke with Brunsma about why the idea of dressing for success is a myth that public school officials don’t want to give up.
Q: In spite of what your research shows, many educators swear that their students are better behaved and more focused on their schoolwork when they wear uniforms. Are these teachers delusional?
A: Perceptions aren’t reality. Perceptions sometimes are important interpretations of reality, but often they can mask deeper issues. Because teachers know this policy is being implemented from the top down and they know the desired outcome, it’s like putting on rose-colored glasses. You’re trying to make it work, so you’re going to say it works, and you’re going to see the good things. In some districts, there may be a real iron-fist approach to uniform policies and a climate where you can’t really say anything bad about it.
Q: Are people not swayed by research?
A: In Waterbury, Connecticut, the ACLU [of Connecticut] asked me to present my findings on the school district [in the 1999 court case Teshana Byars et al. v.City of Waterbury et al., which challenged the district’s school uniform policy]. If I found uniforms were a positive influence on the outcomes of interest in Waterbury, Connecticut, I would have presented those findings. But I didn’t find that. After I finished, I went back and sat in my seat and proceeded to watch the superintendent of the district say, yes, school uniforms are effective. Where I had to do a PowerPoint presentation [and] a year’s worth of analyses, this administrator could just stand up and say, as an individual who hasn’t really looked into it, ‘I think uniforms are great.’ [The policy was upheld.]
Q: Why have school uniforms appeared in public schools at this point in American history?
A: If we go back to very early in the 1980s, there were a select few incidents of violence over designer clothes and shoes, and this led several people, from Mayor Marion Barry in D.C. all the way up to President Clinton some 15 years later, to make the call for public school uniforms. It was also during the ’80s that the educational research was quite focused on the comparison between Catholic schools and public schools. I think implicitly what was registering in people’s minds was, OK, if Catholic schools are outperforming public schools on average, what’s different about Catholic schools? Maybe it’s this uniform idea. That’s the climate in which all this stuff started coming to the forefront.
Q: Your research shows that uniforms have no effect on academic achievement or behavioral problems, but do they provide other kinds of benefits?
A: One of the classic arguments is that parents have an easier time in the morning because there are no decisions to be made. If that’s why the district wants to pursue this, to make their parents’ morning time easier, then OK. However, there are potential ramifications. Some of the more affluent parents buy multiple uniforms per kid so that the uniforms stay crisp and clean, whereas poorer parents can’t afford it. If that child has one uniform throughout the school year, that uniform is going to look pretty different by mid-semester than the more affluent kids’ uniforms, and so we’re back to the distinction that uniforms are trying to erase. ... I remember a black mother outside of Houston who couldn’t afford the school uniform, so she was forced to go in front of the board of education and prove her disadvantage. This is disturbing to me.
Q: How do school uniforms compare to other uniforms in our society, such as sports team jerseys, doctors’ scrubs, or prison jumpsuits?
A: These uniforms distinguish an “us” from a “them” and symbolically create visual cues for who’s marked with authority and who is marked with subordinate status. Advocates say [uniforms] will indirectly affect achievement through producing a more level playing field, a more positive school environment, school unity, school pride, and so on. However, there’s no evidence that they do.
Q: Why is the movement growing, then?
A: One, on the surface, this appears to be a common-sensical, low-cost reform effort, and people are interested in those. Two, people have increasingly become afraid of the diversity of our public school student bodies. Every time there’s a school shooting, we see a blip in adoption of uniform policies. Uniforms have increased as an attempt to assert some kind of control in the face of uncertainties. [Then, there’s] this increasing corporate influence in our public schools. Some of these corporate clothiers are providing incentives for schools to buy their uniforms.
Q: You found that school uniforms are more likely to be adopted in public schools with a higher percentage of students who are low-achieving, minority, poor, and urban and where there are low levels of parental involvement. What does it say about our educational system that it is these schools that are embracing uniforms?
A: It was shocking to me. Growing up, I remember seeing pictures of Native American children dressed in frontier clothes. And I’m thinking, OK, so we’ve taken away their land, we’ve decimated their culture, and we’re going to dress them up like us to make them feel in some way that they are a part of the American dream when it’s been stripped away from them. We’ve done the same thing to African Americans, Latinos, and Chinese Americans. We don’t know what to do with those groups of people. For all our talk of diversity, we don’t like the work behind the word, which is to actually make diversity a strength. It could potentially be seen as a racist and classist policy. But them’s fightin’ words.
The more affluent parents—white, largely—in their suburban districts are voting these things down [and] abolishing [programs] that they set up five years ago because they recognize that it’s nothing more than a Band-Aid.
Q: So the symbolism of school uniforms has changed?
A: Oh, yeah. It’s no longer a marker of elite status. It’s become a marker of disadvantage.
Q: Still, we’re just talking about clothes here. Is believing that uniforms will boost the educational atmosphere of a school, whether it does or not, really that problematic?
A: It’s fairly problematic because it’s diverting our attention from much more fundamental aspects of public education. I mean, we have a funding problem. We’ve moved away from civic engagement in this country. We’re so concerned with our own kids’ success, but what about other people’s kids? The disadvantage of one child in my kid’s kindergarten class affects my kid, too. These are social issues, not educational issues per se, but they’ve become educational issues as we have, for the last hundred-plus years, expected the school to solve all of our social ills. What we really need to do is look outside. If you want to level the playing field in school, you have to level the playing field outside of school.
A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 2005 edition of Teacher as Clothes-Minded