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School Uniforms: There Is No Free Lunch

by Todd A. DeMitchell - December 14, 2006

The basic argument for adopting school uniforms is that merely a change of clothes will bring about desired behavioral and academic student outcomes. That a uniform transforms individuals appears to be at the heart of the argument. But, does just wearing a uniform bring about changes in behavior?

Educators and parents continually search for policies and practices that create and sustain a safe and secure school environment that supports high student achievement.  The United States Department of Education’s Manual of School Uniforms website states that a safe and disciplined environment is a requirement for good schools (n.d.).  Community members join the call for establishing a safe and productive school environment and often add the dimension of efficiency to the problem solution strategies.  This added dimension of efficiency requires that the safety and achievement policies be delivered with maximum effect for the minimum cost.  

For some, this problem stream of securing student safety and enhancing achievement intersects with a solution stream requiring students to wear a school uniform.  For example, former President Clinton supported the use of uniforms to reduce violence and provide a safe environment for students and adults (1996).  Other proponents of school uniforms assert that students wearing uniforms to school leads to a safer environment and higher student achievement; in short, a more disciplined learning environment is created by wearing school uniforms.  And, these outcomes are achieved with no accompanying expenditure or addition to the budget line for the school.  In other words, the school attains important goals with no new costs—the most efficient outcome of the value of efficiency, something for nothing.  The cost of the uniforms, which solves the problem of safety and achievement, would be passed on to the parents with the argument that their new cost would be offset by the reduced cost of designer clothes spurred by their child’s need to dress in the latest fashions or risk social ostracism.  Therefore, reduced peer pressure to conform to the latest styles is added to the benefits of wearing a required school uniform.

In addition, the argument for implementing a student uniform requirement asserts that a change of clothes lowers truancies and tardies, increases attendance rates, raises student achievement, instills a sense of pride in students, and improves the tone and climate of the school.  The U.S. Department of Education adds that the potential benefits of school uniforms include reduced violence and theft as well as the means to provide assistance in identifying intruders at a given school.

Student behavioral change, school cultural change, and higher achievement, all for little to no cost, must be the holy grail of school remedies.  But, will the bromide of only a change of clothes bring about these desired outcomes?  Are school uniforms a real remedy for the thorny problems that beset our public schools or are they just a placebo that masks the heavy lifting that real achievement and school cultural change require?

The implementation of this remedy for what one middle school principal called student “draggin’, saggin’, and laggin’” (United States Department of Education, n.d.) has engendered controversy.  There are two prominent arenas in which the school uniform controversy has surfaced: (1) does the research support the claims of uniform proponents and (2) do the courts find the mandatory school uniforms policies constitutionally firm.  Each will be briefly discussed below.

Research on School Uniforms

Superintendents, principals, and school board members contemplating whether or not to adopt a school uniform policy review the research supporting arguments for and against the proposal.  The arguments for the proposal are often weighted with anecdotes and perception studies of effectiveness.  The perception studies provide a background, but they do little to assess effectiveness.  Whether parents support school uniform policies is a beginning point for a school board considering school uniforms; however, it is not sufficient.  Studies that assess principal support for school uniforms may yield an important additional level of understanding because principals are the individuals who will implement the policy.  DeMitchell, Fossey, and Cobb (2000) found in their national sample that principals had greater support for dress codes than uniforms.  High school principals had greater support—although not statistically significant—for dress codes than middle school and elementary school principals.  But when asked their level of support for uniforms, high school principals did not support uniforms.  They differed significantly from middle and elementary school principals who supported school uniforms.  A National Association of Elementary School Principals (2000) nationwide telephone survey of 755 principals reported that school uniforms had a positive effect on the school’s image in the community (84 percent), classroom discipline (79 percent), peer pressure (76 percent), school spirit (72 percent), concentration on schoolwork (67 percent), and student safety (62 percent).  However, this data must be tempered by the fact that 71 percent of the respondents did not have a school uniform policy and were not considering adopting such a policy.  

Brunsma (2004) reviewed six small-scale studies.  He concluded that these small-scale studies are not “useful as generalizable evidence that can be used by other schools struggling with the decision to implement a uniform policy” (p. 45).  The six studies reviewed drew conflicting conclusions as to the effectiveness of school uniforms.  Brunsma’s conclusion must be placed within the context of his and Rockquemore’s (1998) large-scale study of school uniforms.  Brunsma and Rockquemore used the National Educational Longitudinal Study of 1988 to answer whether school uniforms decreased substance abuse and behavioral problems, and increased attendance and academic achievement (p. 54).  They found that school uniforms did not have a direct effect on behavioral or academic outcomes of students.  They concluded that adopting a school uniform policy was largely symbolic.  They wrote: “Instituting a uniform policy can be viewed as analogous to cleaning and brightly painting a deteriorating building in that on one hand, it grabs our immediate attention; on the other hand, it is only a coat of paint” (p. 60). The research at this time does not appear to support the outcomes claimed by school uniform proponents.

Passing Constitutional Muster

Students have challenged school uniform policies by bringing lawsuits.  The argument most often advanced is that the policy abridges the plaintiff’s right to free speech. However, one case, Byars v. City of Waterbury (2001), was filed under a theory of a deprivation of a liberty interest to wear jeans to school.  Four cases contesting the constitutionality of school uniforms were brought forth in Arizona, Texas, Louisiana, and Connecticut.  The school uniform policies were upheld in all four cases using a variety of legal concepts and analyses to support school uniform policies.  The uniformity of these decisions is contrasted with the variety of outcomes for dress code cases (DeMitchell, 2001; DeMitchell, 2004).  It is interesting to note that dress codes prohibit students from wearing specific types of clothing, leaving a large spectrum of student choice for what to wear to school.  A school uniform, on the other hand, is mandatory, leaving the student no choice of what to wear except that which is allowed by the policy—e.g., blue or khaki.  Paradoxically, students appear to have greater rights to choose what they want to wear to school when the policy is more flexible, and fewer rights to choose what to wear when the policy is more restrictive.  The explanation could be that judges have accepted the rationale advanced by school boards as to the pedagogical purpose for the school uniforms. Currently, the courts do not see a constitutional problem with school uniforms.

My Position

The basic argument for adopting school uniforms is that merely a change of clothes will bring about desired behavioral and academic student outcomes.  That a uniform transforms individuals appears to be at the heart of the argument.  But, does just wearing a uniform bring about changes in behavior?  I assert that for some it does, but those individuals may already be predisposed towards the goals of the school—behavioral adherence to rules and academic hard work.  My concern is that mandatory school uniforms, while not harming students, may mask the hard work that is needed for the public schools to meet their important goals.  Changing clothes is a quick and visible fix. Consequently, a mandate involving what to wear is too easily substituted for the hard labor of building long term capacity.  

My concern is that it is too convenient to say we have adopted a school uniform and now we can sit back and not take further action.  This is similar to our penchant for the quick fix for financing our schools by using a lottery rather than employing a sustained effort and prioritizing society’s needs and consequent resource allocation.  Changing schools involves heavy lifting; mandating a school uniform is an easy action belying the enormity of the task.  If wearing a school uniform brings about behavioral changes and enhanced academic achievement, should we require that teachers and principals also wear the same uniform?  Or, does the magic of a uniform only work for students?  

I am wary of implementing an easy solution for a difficult task.  Mandating school uniforms strikes me as an easy solution for the hard, sustained task of changing behavior and increasing academic achievement.  The argument for school uniforms is a false promise and a vain hope.  There is no free lunch.


Brunsma, D.L. (2004). The school uniform movement and what it tells us about American

education: A symbolic crusade. Lanham. MD: ScarecrowEducation.

Brunsma, D.L. & Rockquemore, K.A. (1998). Effects of student uniforms on attendance,

behavior problems, substance use, and academic achievement.  The Journal of Educational Research, 92, 53-62.

Byars v. City of Waterbury, 47 Conn. Supp. 342 (Conn. Super. 2001).

Clinton, W. J. (February 24,1996). Remarks by the President on School Uniform Program. Jackie Robinson Academy, Long Beach California. Available online at http://www.ed.gov/pressreleases/02-1996/whpr28 (accessed 18 July 1998).

DeMitchell, T.A. (2004). The law and student clothing. In David L. Brunsma, The school uniform movement and what it tells us about American education: A symbolic crusade. Lanham, MD: ScarecrowEducation, 51-73.

DeMitchell, T.A. (2001). School uniforms and the Constitution: Common dress in an uncommon time.  Education Law Reporter, 156, 1-19.

DeMitchell, T.A., Fossey, R., & Cobb, C. (2000). Dress codes in the public schools: Principals, policies, and precepts. Journal of Law & Education, 29, 31-49.

National Association of Elementary School Principals. (February 2000). Survey of school

principals reports positive effects of school uniforms.  Available online at http://www.naesp.org/ContentLoad.do?contentId=929 (accessed 3 December 2006).

United States Department of Education. (n.d.). Manual of school uniforms.  Available

online at http://www.ed.gov/updates/uniforms.html (accessed 25 October 2006).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: December 14, 2006
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12891, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 9:54:34 AM

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About the Author
  • Todd DeMitchell
    University of New Hampshire
    E-mail Author
    TODD A. DEMITCHELL is Professor and Kimball Fellow, Department of Education & Justice Studies Program at the University of New Hampshire. He studies school law, educational policy, and collective bargaining. He has published three books and over 120 articles, book chapters, and essays. Prior to joining the faculty in higher education he spent 18 years in the public schools as a substitute teacher, teacher, assistant principal, principal, director of personnel & labor relations and superintendent.
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