Do School Uniforms Make A Difference?
By Pauline Wallin, Ph.D
A few days ago I was talking with a friend about school
uniforms. "Back in my day," she lamented, "we didn't have
the problems in school that we have now. Kids respected
authority. They didn't talk back. They had to do their
homework, and if they didn't, there were consequences.
There was much more order. Sure, there were some fights,
but the worst that happened was an occasional black eye.
Nobody was shot or stabbed.
"And you know what else?" she added. "Back then we had to
dress properly for school. Even if your school didn't have
uniforms, you still had to wear clean and modest clothing.
Nowadays the kids are sloppy in their dress, in their
language and in their behavior. They're a bunch of spoiled
brats. Even the teachers don't dress or behave like the
authority figures they're supposed to be. No wonder our
schools are in trouble!"
Many people share my friend's sentiments. In fact dozens of
school districts are now adopting, or have already adopted,
a dress code or uniforms. Research seems to show that in
schools which have required uniforms, the students'
attendance and achievement has improved, and the number of
fights has decreased.
Note that I said the research SEEMS to show this. On closer
examination, school uniforms and dress codes don't have
nearly the impact that we assume.
The problem lies in how the bulk of the research was
conducted. In studies where principals or parents were
asked to describe their impressions about the new dress
code, they would typically say things like, "Yeah, the kids
are behaving much better and they are more focused on their
However, when researchers actually measured school
attendance, achievement, number of fights and other
indicators of good citizenship, the results were mixed. In
some schools there was no difference between their
pre-uniform days and after uniforms were introduced. In
other schools things got worse. A few schools did show
moderate improvements in test scores and behavior.
But even where there were improvements, we can't attribute
these to dress code alone. It turns out that when schools
adopted uniforms or dress codes, they also made other
changes in how things were run. For example, they upgraded
their curriculum, enforced rules more consistently, added
better security measures and had more parent involvement.
In fact, these other measures may well have had more of an
impact than did the clothes.
If you are interested in reading a comprehensive review of
the research (it's actually in readable English!) see this
article by David Brunsma, a sociologist at the University of
You may be reading this and thinking, "I don't care what the
studies say. I just KNOW that kids are more conscientious
and better behaved when they dress neatly and modestly."
You're not alone in thinking this way. Research has shown
that both students and teachers believe that students behave
better and get better grades when they wear uniforms. This
is called the "Halo effect." It refers to the fact that
when we see one positive feature about a person, we tend to
infer others. Therefore, if someone is well-dressed, we
make additional positive assumptions about them – e.g., that
they're conscientious and respectful.
Sometimes the halo effect can be misleading. Consider the
corporate scoundrels who were exposed for defrauding their
companies of billions of dollars. These guys were among the
best-dressed folks in society!
In summary, we know that merely putting navy blue blazers on
school kids will not transform them into model students. It
is more important to provide an atmosphere where rules are
clear and enforced; where expectations create attainable
challenges; and where parents are involved in their
children's education. These will boost our children's
success far more than any uniform.
Copyright Pauline Wallin, Ph.D. 2003. All rights reserved
Pauline Wallin, Ph.D. is a psychologist in Camp Hill, PA,
and author of "Taming Your Inner Brat: A Guide for
Transforming Self-defeating Behavior" (Beyond Words
Visit http://www.innerbrat.com for more information, and
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