History of School Uniforms
Traditionally favored by private and parochial institutions, school uniforms are being adopted by US public schools in increasing numbers. According to a 2020 report, the percentage of public schools that required school uniforms jumped from 12% in the 1999-2000 school year to 20% in the 2017-18 school year. School uniforms were most frequently required by elementary schools (23%), followed by middle (18%), and high schools (10%).
The first recorded use of standardized dress in education may have been in England in 1222, when the Archbishop of Canterbury mandated that students wear a robe-like outfit called the “cappa clausa.” The origin of the modern school uniform can be traced to 16th Century England, when the impoverished “charity children” attending the Christ’s Hospital boarding school wore blue cloaks reminiscent of the cassocks worn by clergy, along with yellow stockings. As of Sep. 2014, students at Christ’s Hospital were still wearing the same uniform, and according to the school it is the oldest school uniform still in use. When Christ’s Hospital surveyed its students in 2011, 95% voted to keep the traditional uniforms. Read more history…
Pro & Con Arguments
School uniforms deter crime and increase student safety.
In Long Beach, California, after two years of a district-wide K-8 mandatory uniform policy, reports of assault and battery in the district’s schools decreased by 34%, assault with a deadly weapon dropped by 50%, fighting incidents went down by 51%, sex offenses were cut by 74%, robbery dropped by 65%, possession of weapons (or weapon “look-alikes”) decreased by 52%, possession of drugs went down by 69%, and vandalism was lowered by 18%.
One year after Sparks Middle School in Nevada instituted a uniform policy, school police data showed a 63% drop in police log reports, and decreases were also noted in gang activity, student fights, graffiti, property damage, and battery. A peer-reviewed study found that schools with uniform policies had 12% fewer firearm-related incidents and 15% fewer drug-related incidents than schools without uniforms.
School uniforms also prevent students from concealing weapons under baggy clothing, make it easier to keep track of students on field trips, and make intruders on campus more visible. Frank Quatrone, superintendent in the Lodi school district of New Jersey, states, “When you have students dressed alike, you make them safer. If someone were to come into a building, the intruder could easily be recognized.”
Further, school uniforms create a level playing field among students, reducing peer pressure and bullying. When all students are dressed alike, competition between students over clothing choices and the teasing of those who are dressed in less expensive or less fashionable outfits can be eliminated. Research by the Schoolwear Association found that 83% of teachers thought “a good school uniform… could prevent bullying based on appearance or economic background.” Arminta Jacobson, Founder and Director of the Center for Parent Education at the University of North Texas, states that uniforms put “all kids on the same playing field in terms of their appearance. I think it probably gives them a sense of belonging and a feeling of being socially accepted.”
And, school uniforms prevent the display of gang colors and insignia, reducing gang activity and pressure to join on school property. The U.S. Department of Education’s Manual on School Uniforms stated that uniform policies can “prevent gang members from wearing gang colors and insignia at school” in order to “encourage a safe environment.” Educators in the Long Beach Unified School District have speculated that the sharp reduction in crime following the introduction of school uniforms was a result of gang conflicts being curbed. Osceola County, Florida School Board member Jay Wheeler reports that the county’s schools had a 46% drop in gang activity after their first full school year with a mandatory K-12 uniform policy. Wheeler explains that “clothing is integral to gang culture… Imagine a U.S. Armed Forces recruiter out of uniform trying to recruit new soldiers; the success rate goes down. The same applies to gang recruitment.”   Read More
School uniforms keep students focused on their education, not their clothes.
The National Association of Secondary School Principals states, “When all students are wearing the same outfit, they are less concerned about how they look and how they fit in with their peers; thus, they can concentrate on their schoolwork.” And a study by the University of Houston found that elementary school girls’ language test scores increased by about three percentile points after uniforms were introduced.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton advocates school uniforms as a way to help students focus on learning: “Take that [clothing choices] off the table and put the focus on school, not on what you’re wearing.” Chris Hammons, Principal of Woodland Middle School in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, explains that uniforms “provide for less distraction, less drama, and more of a focus on learning.”
Wearing uniforms also enhances school pride, unity, and community spirit, which can boost interest in education. A study of over 1,000 Texas middle school students found that students in uniform “reported significantly more positive perceptions of belonging in their school community than reported by students in the standard dress group.” Christopher P. Clouet, former Superintendent of the New London Public Schools in Connecticut, stated that “the wearing of uniforms contributes to school pride.” Arnold Goldstein, PhD, head of the Center for Research on Aggression at Syracuse University, points out that uniforms help troubled students feel they have the support of a community: “There is a sense of belonging.” Further, “teachers perceived an increase in the level of respect, caring, and trust… throughout the school” and “students are made to feel ‘important’ and as if they are a part of a team by wearing a uniform,” according to a peer-reviewed study.
Plus, school uniforms can improve attendance and discipline. A study by researchers at the University of Houston found that the average absence rate for girls in middle and high school decreased by 7% after the introduction of uniforms, and behavioral problems lessened in severity. School uniforms make getting ready for school easier, which can improve punctuality.
When uniforms are mandatory, parents and students do not spend time choosing appropriate outfits for the school day. According to a national survey, over 90% of US school leaders believe school uniform or formal dress code policies “eliminate wardrobe battles with kids,” make it “easier to get kids ready in the morning,” and create a “time saving in the morning.” Tracey Marinelli, Superintendent of the Lyndhurst School District in New Jersey, credits the district’s uniform policy for reducing the number of students running late. Lyndhurst student Mike Morreale agrees, stating that “it’s so much easier to dress than having to search for clothes and find out that something doesn’t match.” A Youngstown State University study of secondary schools in Ohio’s eight largest school districts found that school uniform policies improve rates of attendance, graduation, and suspension.
During the first semester of a mandatory uniform program at John Adams Middle School in Albuquerque, NM, discipline referrals dropped from 1,565 during the first semester of the year prior to 405, a 74% decrease. Macquarie University (Australia) researchers found that in schools across the world where uniform policies are enforced, students “are more disciplined” and “listen significantly better, there are lower noise levels, and lower teaching waiting times with classes starting on time.”
Wasted time in classrooms is reduced because uniform policies save valuable class time because they are easier to enforce than a standard dress code. Doris Jo Murphy, former Director of Field Experiences at the University of North Texas College of Education, states, “As an elementary assistant principal in two suburban districts, I can tell you that the dress code took up a great deal of my time in the area of discipline… I wished many times that we had uniforms because the issue of skirts or shorts being too short, and baggy jeans and pants on the boys not being pulled up as they needed to be, would have been a non-issue.” Lyndhurst, NJ school district superintendent Tracey Marinelli had a similar experience before a uniform policy was introduced: “Kids were spending time in the office because they were not fulfilling the dress code… That was time away from class.”Read More
Students’ legal right to free expression remains intact with mandatory school uniforms.
The 1969 U.S. Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, which concerned the wearing of black armbands to protest the Vietnam War, confirmed that students’ constitutional right to free speech “does not relate to regulation of the length of skirts or the type of clothing.” Wearing one’s own choice of shirt or pants is not the “pure speech” protected by the Constitution.
In Canady v. Bossier Parish School Board (3-0, 2001), the US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a school board’s right to implement a mandatory uniform policy, stating that requiring uniforms for the purpose of increasing test scores and improving discipline “is in no way related to the suppression of student speech. [Students] remain free to wear what they want after school hours. Students may still express their views through other mediums during the school day.”
Besides, students can still express their individuality in school uniforms by introducing variations and adding accessories. Junior high school student Amelia Jimenez wrote in her op-ed for the Pennsylvania Patriot-News that “contrary to popular belief, uniforms do not stop students from being themselves. Uniforms do not silence voices. Students can wear a variety of expressive items, such as buttons or jewlery.” Students can inject their personal style into their daily look with hairstyles, nail polish, and colorful accessories such as bags, scarfs, and fun socks. 54% of eighth-graders said they could still express their individuality while wearing school uniforms.
Further, students dressed in uniform are better perceived by teachers and peers. A 1994 peer-reviewed study found that students in uniform were perceived by teachers and fellow students as being more academically proficient than students in regular clothes. The study also found that students in uniform were perceived by peers and teachers as having higher academic potential, and perceived by peers as being better behaved. Students need to learn a balance between free expression and working within the confines of expectations.Read More
School uniforms do not stop bullying and can actually increase violent attacks.
“Overall, there is no evidence in bullying literature that supports a reduction in violence due to school uniforms, explains Tony Volk, Associate Professor at Brock University. The oft-quoted improvements to school safety and student behavior in the Long Beach (CA) Unified School District from 1993-1995 may not have resulted from the introduction of school uniforms. The study in which the findings were published cautioned that “it is not clear that these results are entirely attributable to the uniform policy” and suggests that the introduction of new school security measures made at the same time may have been partly responsible.
Further, a peer-reviewed study found that “school uniforms increased the average number of assaults by about 14 [per year] in the most violent schools.” A Texas Southern University study found that school discipline incidents rose by about 12% after the introduction of uniforms. And, according to the Miami-Dade County Public Schools Office of Education Evaluation and Management, fights in middle schools nearly doubled within one year of introducing mandatory uniforms.
Discipline problems increase in part because school uniforms emphasize the socio-economic divisions they are supposed to eliminate. Most public schools with uniform policies are in low-income neighborhoods (47% of high-poverty public schools required school uniforms vs. 6% of low poverty schools), emphasizing the class distinctions that uniforms were supposed to eliminate. Even within one school, uniforms cannot conceal the differences between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” David L. Brunsma explains that “more affluent families buy more uniforms per child. The less affluent… they have one… It’s more likely to be tattered, torn and faded. It only takes two months [after a uniform policy is implemented] for socioeconomic differences to show up again.”Read More
School uniforms do not improve attendance, academic preparedness, or exam results.
A study that analyzed a national sample of 10th graders found “no effects of uniforms on absenteeism, behavioral problems (fights, suspensions, etc.), or substance use on campus” and “no effects” on “pro-school attitudes, academic preparedness, and peer attitudes toward school.”  Brunsma also found a “negative effect of uniforms on academic achievement,” and later found that uniforms were equally ineffective on elementary students and eighth graders. A peer-reviewed study found “no significant effects of school uniforms on performance on second grade reading and mathematics examinations, as well as on 10th-grade reading, mathematics, science, and history examinations… [I]n many of the specifications, the results are actually negative.”
The problems arise because focusing on uniforms takes attention away from finding genuine solutions to problems in education. Spending time and effort implementing uniform policies detracts from more effective efforts to reduce crime in schools and boost student performance. More substantive improvements to public education could be achieved with smaller class sizes, tightened security, increased parental involvement, improved facilities, and other measures. Tom Houlihan, former Superintendent of Schools in Oxford, North Carolina, stated that school uniforms “are a distraction from focusing on systematic and fundamental transformation to improve our schools.”
That uniform policies are a distraction is most evident when we realize that the push for school uniforms is driven by commercial interests rather than educational ones. Americans spend around $1 billion on school uniforms every year. Retailer J.C. Penney Co. says school uniforms are “a huge, important business for us.” In one year alone, uniform company Lands’ End spent $3 million on marketing efforts directed at public schools and districts. Multiple studies used to promote the effectiveness of uniforms were partly funded by Lands’ End, and at least one of those studies is “so wholly flawed as to render itself useless,” according to David L. Brunsma. Reuters reported that retailers were “sensing their opportunity… stepping up competition in the uniform aisles and online. Walmart has set up ‘uniform shops’ or temporary boutiques within some stores.”
The commercialization of school uniforms in public schools also undermines the promise of a free education by imposing an extra expense on families. Parents already pay taxes, and they still need to buy regular clothes for their children to wear when they’re out of school and for dress-down days. The Children’s Commission on Poverty (UK) found that over “95% of parents on low incomes reported difficulties in meeting school-related costs,” including uniforms, despite their children attending tuition-free schools. Anderson, Indiana, parents Laura and Scott Bell argued against their children’s school uniform policy, saying the $641 for their children’s uniforms broke the guarantee of a free public education. In York County, Pennsylvania, a local NBC affiliate reported that some children were missing class because their families couldn’t afford to purchase the required uniforms. And, all of that is before the uniform policies themselves are examined. Most operate like dress codes and are classist, racist, and sexist.Read More
School uniforms restrict students’ freedom of expression.
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees that all individuals have the right to express themselves freely. The U.S. Supreme Court stated in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969) that “it can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
In Sweden, a government agency, the School Inspectorate, determined that uniforms were a human rights violation because “dress and appearance should be considered an individual expression, decided by the students themselves.” Clothing choices are “a crucial form of self-expression,” according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, which also states that “allowing students to choose their clothing is an empowering message from the schools that a student is a maturing person who is entitled to the most basic self-determination.”
Uniforms take away the ability to use clothing as means of expressing support for social causes. Students at Friendly High School in Prince George’s County, MD, were not allowed to wear pink shirts to support Breast Cancer Awareness Month and 75 students received suspensions for breaking the school’s uniform restrictions. Removing these choices can delay the transition into adulthood. Adults make their own clothing choices and have the freedom to express themselves through their appearance. Denying children and teenagers the opportunity to make those choices may make them ill-prepared for the adult world. Adolescents see clothing choices as a means of identification, and seeking an identity is one of the critical stages of adolescence, according to the late developmental psychologist Erik Erikson.
When students have to wear the same outfits, rather than being allowed to select clothes that suit their body types, they can suffer embarrassment at school. Child and teen development specialist Robyn Silverman says that students, especially girls, tend to compare how each other looks in their uniforms: “As a body image expert, I hear from students all the time that they feel it allows for a lot of comparison… So if you have a body that’s a plus-size body, a curvier body, a very tall body, a very short body, those girls often feel that they don’t look their best.” A study by researchers at Arizona State University found that “students from schools without uniforms reported higher self-perception scores than students from schools with uniform policies.” Some students also find uniforms less comfortable than their regular clothes, which may not be conducive to learning.
Further, school uniforms promote conformity over individuality. Chicago, Illinois, junior high school student Kyler Sumter says: “They decide to teach us about people like Rosa Parks, Susan B. Anthony and Booker T. Washington… We learn about how these people expressed themselves and conquered and we can’t even express ourselves in the hallways.” Troy Shuman, a senior in Harford County, Maryland, said the introduction of a mandatory uniform policy to his school would be “teaching conformity and squelching individual thought. Just think of prisons and gangs. The ultimate socializer to crush rebellion is conformity in appearance. If a school system starts at clothes, where does it end?”
In schools where uniforms are specifically gendered (girls must wear skirts and boys must wear pants), transgender, gender-fluid, and gender-nonconforming students can feel ostracized. Seamus, a 16-year-old transgender boy, stated, “sitting in a blouse and skirt all day made me feel insanely anxious. I wasn’t taken seriously. This is atrocious and damaging to a young person’s mental health; that uniform nearly destroyed me.” Late satirist George Carlin asked, “Don’t these schools do enough damage, making all these children think alike? Now they’re gonna get them to look alike, too?”
Beyond student preference, parents should be free to choose their children’s clothes without government interference. One of the founders of the Wilson County (Louisiana) Parents Coalition, Richard Dashkovitz, states: “It’s time we let the government know that we are fed up with this. Quit dictating to us what my child should wear… [T]he government is intruding into our private lives, roles as parents and the lives of our children.” According to another parents’ rights group, Asserting Parental Rights — It’s Our Duty, mandatory uniform “policies trample parents’ right to raise children without government interference.”Read More
|Did You Know?
|1. The first school district in the United States to require all K-8 students to wear uniforms was Long Beach, CA, in Jan. 1994.
|2. Americans spend around $1 billion per year on school uniforms.
|3. Students at Eton, one of England's most prestigious schools, were required to wear black top hats and tails on and off campus until 1972.
|4. US schools with a minority student population of 50% or more are four times as likely to require uniforms than schools with a minority population of 20-49%, and 24 times more likely than schools with minority populations of 5%-19%.
|5. A government agency in Sweden declared that mandatory school uniforms were a human rights violation, stating that students should decide their dress and appearance as "a matter of the individual's freedom and integrity."
|More School Debate Topics
|Should parents or other adults be able to ban books from schools and libraries?
|Are school vouchers a good idea?
|Should K-12 students dissect animals in science classrooms?