More American schools are asking their students to purchase a uniform prior to returning to class this fall. Over the last ten years, the number of public schools either imposing a strict dress code or requiring a uniform grew by over 60%.
Public school uniforms in the United States have a rather convoluted history. They were first proposed in the early 1980's by Marion Barry, the famously dissolute then-mayor of Washington D.C. Barry believed that uniforms would aid in closing the achievement gap between the city's public school and parochial or Catholic school students. Although the idea went nowhere initially, according to Greg Toppo of USA Today, uniforms were adopted in 1987 by Baltimore's Cherry Hill Elementary School — the first such policy in the history of public schools.
The idea flopped, but in 1987, Cherry Hill Elementary School in Baltimore implemented the first known schoolwide uniform policy "as a means of reducing clothing costs and social pressures on children," writes David Brunsma, a Virginia Tech sociologist and author of the 2004 book The School Uniform Movement and What It Tells Us About American Education. School officials hoped uniforms would lead to "better grades, better behavior, increased self-esteem and school pride," he says.
According to Brunsma, the rate of uniform adoption is outpacing research on the benefits. Brunsma notes that the studies that have been conducted on uniform effectiveness in improving academic outcomes have been either inconclusive or showed that the impact of uniforms was outright deleterious.
Brunsma understands why school uniforms or strict dress codes have become so appealing to administrators. They represent a visible change, communicate seriousness on the part of the school to improve students' academic environment and – best of all – cost the school nothing.
However, some have taken exception with Brunsma's assertion, saying that uniforms are not just for show, but do lead to actual improvement – although not always in academics.
Longtime school safety consultant Ken Trump said educators like uniforms because they simplify their jobs, saving them from having to punish kids for too-short skirts or shorts, for instance.
"Kids are trying so hard to one-up each other on everything from hair styles to shoes," he says. "It takes away the daily fashion show and helps level the playing field a little bit with the haves and have-nots."
Trump's children attend a Cleveland-area Catholic school and are allowed to show up out of uniform as an occasional reward for good behavior. He says administrators there tell him the school climate deteriorates when too many kids are out of uniform.