School uniforms may still be the exception rather than the rule in U.S. public schools, but a school uniform policy is becoming more common. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, from the 1999 – 2000 to 2013 – 2014 school years, the percentage of public schools reporting they required students to wear uniforms increased from 12 to 20 percent.
In the 2015 – ’16 school year, 21 percent of public schools reported they required students to wear uniforms, with more primary schools (25 percent) requiring students to wear uniforms than middle schools (20 percent) and high schools (12 percent).
On the face of it, the topic of school uniforms doesn’t seem to be particularly controversial. But start asking around, and you’ll find that most parents — and their kids, naturally — have strong opinions. Who knew that what kids wear to school could be so polarizing?
If you’re not sure where you stand on the school uniform debate, here are some of the main pros and cons.
Pros of school uniforms
- Uniforms typically cost less than high-end brands and designer clothes, which saves some parents money.
- According to the 2010 University of Houston research paper “Dressed for Success? The Effect of School Uniforms on Student Achievement and Behavior,” student attendance is likely to improve if students wear uniforms.
- A 2002 National Association of Elementary School Principals Research Roundup claims uniforms encourage discipline.
- “School Uniforms and Safety,” a 1996 SAGE research article, says uniforms are correlated with a reduction of violence in schools.
- Research carried out by the Schoolwear Association in 2017 revealed that school uniforms improved students’ well-being by reducing pressure about fashion and appearance and preventing bullying based on appearance or socioeconomic background.
However, for every pro of school uniforms, there is a con.
Cons of school uniforms
- In a 2007 poll of public school students in Harford County, Maryland, students expressed concern that uniforms detract from a child’s individuality. One senior said uniforms would be “teaching conformity and squelching individual thought.”
- School uniforms enforce outdated gender stereotypes, as argued in 2016 by 9-year-old Irish student Lucille O’Mahony.
- Uniforms often emphasize socioeconomic divisions between students who can afford more uniforms and those who can’t. In a 2014 Children’s Commission on Poverty inquiry carried out in the U.K., where some type of uniform is mandatory for all students from primary school (4 to 5 years) through higher secondary school (15 to 16 years), found that paying for school uniforms is a significant challenge for many parents.
- Students may not like wearing uniforms, which may affect their behavior and effort in school. After a school uniform policy was implemented in three Nevada middle schools in 2008 and 2009, 90 percent of students reported that they disliked wearing uniforms.
Former President Bill Clinton is perhaps the most famous and influential advocate of school uniforms. “If it means that the schoolrooms will be more orderly and more disciplined and that our young people will learn to evaluate themselves by what they are on the inside instead of what they’re wearing on the outside, then our public schools should be able to require their students to wear uniforms,” he said in a March 1996 speech.
But the opinions that really matter are those of parents. SheKnows spoke to four moms with different views.
Toinette Campbell, a mom of two boys in Burbank, California, is decidedly pro: “Uniforms? I love them. The key word being uniform. It gives kids a level playing field and gets them away from one-upmanship on designer labels. It also gets kids used to taking care of their clothes. Getting rid of status symbols prevents children from being teased because they aren’t wearing $150 jeans.”
Carol O’Neil, a mother of two boys in East Kilbride, Scotland, agrees: “I am totally for school uniforms, as they keep children dressed the same and stop all of the nonsense with kids wearing designer gear. If kids are dressed the same, then they are less likely to be bullied.” (In the U.K., uniforms are compulsory in both state and private schools.)
But Eduarda Schroeder, a mom of two daughters in Chandler, Arizona, doesn’t see it that way. “Uniforms can be a financial burden for poor families,” she explains, “because they are an additional expense for parents who pay taxes for a free public education. I am more in favor of a dress code.”
Amelia Edelman, a mom of one in Nashville, Tennessee, makes another point in the anti camp: “In addition to being a sometimes prohibitive cost for lower-income parents, uniforms take away one of the healthiest and most creative modes of self-expression that kids — that all of us — have: what we put on our bodies every day. I was lucky to go to a public school where I could wear all the ripped, paint-splattered jeans and pseudo-punk patches I liked, and my clothes were my armor against whatever the day (or the mean girls) threw at me. I felt safe in my own self-expression, and I want the same for my son.”
According to the 2013 National Survey of School Leaders, the majority of teachers believe that school uniforms promote a positive learning environment and improved behavior in students. But it’s clear that among parents, as well as the kids themselves, the jury’s still out.