Public school uniforms have become the latest rage in education circles. Parents, teachers, school administrators, and politicians are embracing uniforms as the new policy tool for solving the problem of violence in schools. We hear enthusiastic claims that as a result of uniforms, disciplinary incidents and violence have declined, students’ attitudes have improved, and a more serious learning environment has resulted. All these testimonials are confidently communicated, and their sheer abundance is persuasive. But do uniforms, in fact, reduce violence? Or are good intentions and wishful thinking, rather than empirical evidence, driving this policy initiative?
President Clinton has, in the last three months, catapulted the public-school-uniform issue to national prominence by endorsing uniforms in his State of the Union address in January. Subsequently, he again publicly discussed the issue in one of his weekly radio addresses in February and then visited a Long Beach, Calif., school that had instituted a uniform policy.
The president is actively encouraging communities to adopt uniforms and has just asked the U.S. Department of Education to distribute to school districts a new manual offering guidelines for formulating and implementing a uniform policy. In this way, he has not only jumped on the uniform bandwagon but has taken the reins and set it racing off at full speed.
Parents and teachers are enamored with the idea of uniforms. The wearing of uniforms is seen as a concrete and visible means of restoring order and discipline to the classroom. The wearing of uniforms also conjures up visions of the Roman Catholic parochial school system as well. The perception of the Catholic schools is that they are safe, secure, and orderly learning environments. So if uniforms help in even a small way to achieve such an environment in the public schools, let them wear uniforms!
The increased national prominence given to arguments for wearing uniforms has fueled rhetoric decrying the condition of American public education. We are told we need uniforms because the public schools are in bad shape. Violence is rampant, kids in schools are getting killed over designer jackets, assaults on teachers are frequent, and, as Time magazine tells us, more than 100,000 students carry a weapon to school each day. The perception of a crisis of violence raises the pressure on schools and politicians to act quickly. The urge to do something has become widespread. We are seizing on uniforms because they appeal to our conventional wisdom and our intuitive belief that increased structure will improve children’s attitudes.
The problem is, we don’t know whether uniforms actually reduce violence in the schools. We have very little empirical data on the cause-and-effect relationship between uniforms and violence. Because this policy initiative in the public schools is new, we have no track record, just a young body of evidence that is woefully sparse.
What do we know? We have a myriad of anecdotal reports from teachers, parents, and administrators saying that violence has been reduced in their schools with uniforms, that the students are more serious, well-behaved, and focused on their studies, that they have higher self-esteem, that ethnic and racial tensions have decreased, that absenteeism is down, and academic performance up. The National Association of Secondary School Principals recently released results from a survey it conducted of 5,500 secondary school principals, showing that 70 percent believe requiring students to wear uniforms will lower the incidence of discipline problems and violent behaviors. All these testimonials and high hopes are undoubtedly sincere and based on personal experience in the schools. But what about documented results?
The Long Beach, Calif., school district, the first in the country to adopt mandatory public school uniforms in grades K-8, has been touted as an example of the proven success of uniform policies. Long Beach appears to be the only district so far that has provided documented results indicating that uniforms improve student behavior. District officials supply data showing a dramatic decline in violence in their K-8 schools from 1993-94 to 1994-95, including a 51 percent drop in physical fights, a 34 percent drop in assaults and batteries, a 50 percent drop in weapons offenses, and a 32 percent drop in suspensions. (See Education Week, Feb. 14, 1996.)
Simplistic attribution of these declines over one year--and only in grades K-8--to the wearing of school uniforms is problematic. Other factors may be intertwined with and responsible for the decline--presuming the data are trustworthy and that there were no changes in how violence was measured from one year to the next.
In order to eliminate competing explanations for the decline, we must ask what other factors might account for the change in Long Beach during this period. Was the initiation of an uniform policy only one aspect of a comprehensive safety plan that included heightened security measures and stricter rules? Did local community-policing procedures change?
Other questions would include these: Was the trend of violence in the district at its peak and ready to decline? (Comparison from one year to the next does not give a trend.) Were this year’s figures an aberration and in fact the violence will resume? Do we have here a classic example of the “Hawthorne effect,” where the short-term attention to and visibility of the problem created this immediate downturn in violence? Perhaps increased parental involvement in the activities of the school (and thus with their children) is a key factor in the decline. One Long Beach official has admitted that the district does not attribute the decline in violence exclusively to uniforms. He asserted the system’s belief, however, that the decline was more than coincidental with the institution of uniforms.
The point is that without a careful assessment of the data over time and the elimination of competing explanations for why the reductions have taken place, the data from Long Beach have to remain suspect. And it should not be forgotten that the data are only for grades K-8. The realities of violence in high schools are not addressed with any of the Long Beach data.
Ideally, three research techniques would be used to ensure validity and credibility of data results. First, policy effects would be measured from a historical series of observations that would enable us to determine whether the decline in violence is a real change, and not the continuation of a trend, an erratic pattern, or a recovery from an extreme. Second, data on violence would be gathered and compared from two groups of students: a group of experimental, uniformed students and a control group of students outside the school who did not wear uniforms. Third, data would be gathered on other factors that might explain the decrease in violence, and statistical analyses would be conducted to control for these factors. This would be in an ideal world, which is rarely available to us. The absence of these techniques and the uncertainties they create about the interpretation of the data does not mean that the claims of success for uniforms are not real, only that we don’t know for sure. All we can say with certainty is that the data now available in the United States do not now support any specific conclusions about the impact of public school uniforms on violence.
The real question then becomes how fast and how extensively we move forward with a policy that lacks data to support it. The policy adrenaline is running. Do we forge ahead based on intuition, good intentions, and sincere impressionistic beliefs? This would not be the first time in education that a lack of data stood in the way of embracing such a presumed “good thing” for schools and kids. (Dare we use the “f” word and call this rush to uniforms a “fad”?)
Lost in the euphoria over so-called positive results from uniforms are the potential negative or unanticipated consequences of running roughshod over students’ free-expression rights. Norman Isaacs, the principal of Millikan Middle School in Sherman Oaks, Calif., has voiced opposition to uniforms, saying that students need to learn to make choices and decisions based on internal values, rather than functioning with arbitrary rules that set the limits for them. Only then, he says, can they learn to think for themselves and develop self-discipline.
Others also argue that student dress serves as a barometer of what is going on with the student and can signal problems such as drugs, gang membership, or sex abuse. Uniforms would eliminate a warning system that lets teachers and administrators identify and rescue students who need help. Lastly, a uniform policy penalizes everyone instead of focusing on the small percentage of kids causing the problems.
Any number of additional unintended consequences could result from a uniform policy. If the rush to instigate such policies does not result in reduced levels of violence, increases in order and stability, and enhancements of learning, then what? Does public confidence in schools dip still lower? Do the calls for vouchers and choice programs allowing kids to leave the public schools grow louder? Do more Draconian proposals for dealing with school violence emerge? What happens if this whole effort falls flat--and why should we expect it not to?
Measuring these potential costs is difficult, but no less so than measuring changes in students’ attitudes resulting from uniforms. What is needed is some careful thinking and a whole lot of caution. This initiative should not be spared serious cost-benefit assessments. Carefully working through the potential consequences of adopting a school-uniform policy is not time wasted.
The dangers of forging ahead in an atmosphere of such contagious excitement are twofold. Enthusiasm may lead us to perceive initial evidence of violence reduction as permanent. If uniforms are in fact a Band-Aid approach, as some claim, and the underlying problem persists, violence will resurface quickly despite the presence of uniforms. What is more, the adoption of a public school uniform policy may not be as easy or as sustainable as the enthusiasm for the idea might suggest. The move should be considered carefully and balanced against local needs. A number of individual schools have experienced strong resistance to uniforms--on the part of parents as well as students.
The absence of systematic empirical evidence supporting uniforms does not mean that a uniform policy is not good policy or will not work. We just don’t know. The question raised here is how we should proceed. If we are not sure what we are doing, what are our chances of success? If our diagnosis of the problem is wrong, uniform policy is prone to failure and may even be counterproductive. The judicious approach is to proceed thoughtfully, collecting data along the way. Careful pilot studies are well justified.
Making policy decisions based on information that is incomplete, misleading, or absent is risky, because we do not know what we do not know. Along with the euphoria of early results comes the tendency to overstate possible benefits and overlook potential costs. The sense of having a safety crisis in our schools impels us to act before we think. In the case of public school uniforms, it may be wise to pause and assess the implications of our actions. Failure to deliver on promised results with this initiative, as with so many others in education, has its costs.
A version of this article appeared in the April 03, 1996 edition of Education Week as Do They Reduce Violence--Or Just Make Us Feel Better?