Research on school uniforms is minimal, especially research on students' opinions about uniforms, and the use of student uniforms is a growing conversation across the country. Two researchers from the University of Nevada, Reno College of Education studied opinions of students in three middle schools in the Washoe County School District in northern Nevada during the first-year implementation of a uniform policy at the schools. Although 90 percent of the students indicated they did not like wearing uniforms, various benefits to wearing uniforms were reported, including decreases in discipline, gang involvement and bullying; and increases in safety, ease of going to school, confidence and self-esteem.
Jafeth Sanchez, research assistant professor, and George "Gus" Hill, associate professor, designed a 49-question survey to which approximately 1,350 students responded during the schools' first year of implementing a uniform policy. The students were seventh- and eighth-graders at Vaughn and Pine Middle Schools in Reno and at Sparks Middle School in Sparks.
They also examined data on discipline referrals and school police reports before and after the uniform policy was put in place at one of the schools. Females perceived or experienced more benefits than males. Based on grade level, more seventh-graders than eighth-graders reported agreement with statements about the benefits of wearing school uniforms. Results also revealed that Latino students perceived more benefits from uniforms than Caucasian students perceived.
Students' top-rated statements with responses of "Agree" and "Strongly Agree" were: I still have my identity when I wear a uniform (54 percent); My family likes that I wear a uniform to school (53 percent); I think uniforms save money on clothes (50 percent); I worry less about how others look (42 percent); and, There is less gang activity at school (41 percent).
At Sparks Middle School, discipline and school police records were also studied. Compared to the year prior, discipline referrals were reduced by about 10 percent the first year the uniform policy was implemented. Additionally, school police data showed a 63 percent reduction in police log reports during the first year of implementation. Other decreases were noted in reports of gang-related activities and student fights, along with graffiti, property damage, battery and administrative assists.
Since the uniform policy was implemented at Sparks Middle School in 2008-2009, and at the other two schools in 2009-2010, many other Washoe County School District middle schools have implemented a uniform policy, and the district is looking at the possibility of a comprehensive school uniform policy that will establish guidelines for schools interested in school uniforms.
"If a simple change in attire can positively influence more than 30 percent, or even 25 percent of a school's student population, then perhaps administrators, teachers, students and community members find it worth the effort," Sanchez said. "Essentially, students reported positive impacts by simply changing the clothes they wore to school, and comparatively, there wasn't much of a downside."
The researchers emphasized that the school uniform implementations were a collaborative and informative effort among school staff, district administrators and parents.
For more information about the school uniform study, contact Sanchez at 775-682-9078 or firstname.lastname@example.org, Or, see the article that focused on the Sparks Middle School study published in the Journal of School Violence published last fall, "Uniforms in the Middle School: Student opinions, Discipline Data, and School Police Data," co-authored by the two University researchers and Andrew Yoxsimer, principal at Sparks Middle School during the study who is now a Washoe County School District implementation specialist.
Since it was published in April 2013, this story highlighting school-uniform research completed by University of Nevada, Reno College of Education faculty has received more than 60,000 unique page views on Nevada Today, the University's online news site. The story currently ranks number one on Google, Yahoo and Bing for the search term "school uniform study," resulting in a large number of regular inquiries to one of the study's researchers, Jafeth Sanchez, assistant professor of educational leadership.
Below is a list of the most frequently asked questions Sanchez receives around the topic of school uniforms. People interested in accessing more data are also invited to review the complete study, "Uniforms in the Middle School: Student opinions, Discipline Data and School Police Data," which is published in the Journal of School Violence.
School Uniform Study FAQWhat influenced you to write the paper?
Uniform requirements often elicit strong reactions from parents, students, educators and scholars on both sides of the issue. Yet, research on current school uniform efforts is minimal, especially when considering students' opinions. The purpose of this study was to give students a voice and to find out if students actually benefit from school uniforms, as originally intended by the school's leadership team and others involved in the policy implementation process.
What do students think about school uniforms?
If you ask students if they like to wear a uniform, 99 percent of them will say no. If you have them reflect on specific, possible benefits, their answers tend to change. Considering all students' responses, there were many responses against wearing school uniforms, but a substantial number of students indicated benefits to wearing school uniforms.
Are you for or against school uniforms?
My personal opinion is that uniforms can be an effective tool for supporting a positive school climate and overall changes, but it will vary by school context. If uniforms are implemented, they need to be evaluated to identify the effectiveness of the policy. Uniforms are not a "silver bullet" solution to school improvement efforts. I believe it requires holistic change in many areas. Consequently, I am not for or against uniforms, but I am for assessing the policy implementation of uniforms.
What is the correlation with academic grades?
My data did not include academic ties, and the state testing framework was changed at the end of 2012, so the data cannot be linked. My data only collected student perceptions, so I can only address questions related to those findings.
What are the benefits of school uniforms?
The studyfound benefits between genders, grade levels and related to racial/ethnic groupings. The study was based on approximately 604 student responses out of 700 students at the school, with an 86 percent response rate. At the time, the school had approximately 64 percent of the students qualifying for free/reduced lunch.
There were discipline effects examined. Exact numbers are included in the study, where I also note that 30 to 40 percent of the student population reported benefits, so it may be useful from a practical perspective.
The year after initial data collection, two additional schools implemented uniforms, so I surveyed those schools' students, as well, totaling approximately 1,850 students. Findings were very similar to the original article's findings. Findings among the three schools were also almost identical. However, I have not formally published that data in a professional journal.
From a practical perspective, if a simple change in attire can positively influence over 30 percent, or even 25 percent, of a school's student population, then perhaps administrators, teachers, students and community members interested in implementing a school uniform policy might believe it is worth the effort. It is essential to note that the school uniform implementation at the school studied was a collaborative and informative effort among school staff, district administrators and parents. The uniform initiative was not abruptly implemented.
Do you think without more school uniforms there is more bullying?
I can only speak to this based on my findings, rather than offer an opinion. In my research, students indicated that there was a reduction in the bullying that they specifically saw occur at their school. In their responses, it appeared that bullying decreased with uniforms. In addition, there were large reductions in school police reports, referrals, and other disciplinary aspects.
Do school uniforms impose on a student's individual identity?
There was a specific question in my study that asked students to respond in agreement or disagreement: "I still have my identity when I wear a uniform." The majority of students agreed and strongly agreed with this statement; consequently, most students reported that they still had their identity, which is a clear link to their freedom of expression.
What have you seen result from schools mandating students wear uniforms?
1. After school uniform implementation, there was a reduction in discipline.
2. One-third of students reported benefits to wearing school uniforms.
3. Results revealed that Hispanic/Latino students believed they attained more benefits from uniforms than White/Caucasian students. In reference to gender, more than expected females than males indicated specific benefits with wearing school uniforms.
What was the biggest improvement you have seen in students who wear uniforms?
While most students surveyed did not like wearing uniforms, 30 percent of the students believed that wearing uniforms might reduce discipline issues and reported various benefits that may seem worthwhile in enhancing students' quality of their school experience.
In a growing number of school districts across the nation, students must wear a uniform.
This is not the stereotypical school uniform associated with Catholic schools – pleated plaid skirt with a blouse for girls; a button-down shirt, a necktie and dark pants for boys. Instead, these are mostly khaki and blue or khaki and red shirt/blouse and skirt/pants uniforms.
According to the US Department of Education, wearing a uniform can decrease the risk of violence and theft, instill discipline and help school officials recognize intruders who come to the school.
As a former teacher, principal and superintendent and now a policy and law scholar, I am skeptical about such claims.
Research on the effects of school uniforms is still nascent. And the findings on the impact of school uniforms on student behavior, discipline, connection to the school, attendance and academic gains is at best mixed.
Lawsuits, protests, individuality
About half of schools around the country have dress codes policies. A dress code identifies what clothes cannot be worn to school. A school uniform policy defines what clothes must be worn to school. Dress codes limit clothing options while school uniforms define clothing options.
Schools claim that when students come in uniforms, it improves discipline and leads to academic gains. The Bossier Parish School Board in Louisiana enacted a uniform policy in 2001 in order to increase test scores and reduce disciplinary problems.
However, such mandatory policies that decide what students can or cannot wear to schools, have led to free speech violations lawsuits. Students allege such policies are unconstitutional, as they restrict their freedom of expression.
There have been nine lawsuits up to 2014. School districts have won almost all the cases, except one, where an appeals court found the uniform policy of a Nevada school unconstitutional. The school required students to wear shirts emblazoned with the school motto, “Tomorrow’s Leaders,” which the court found to be a violation of students’ free speech rights.
In addition, students have protested in their schools as well.
An example of student and parental reaction to school uniforms is found in my home state of New Hampshire when Pinkerton Academy, a private secondary school, considered adopting a “uniform dress code” (a school uniform).
Students in an online protest wrote:
[A school uniform] takes away individuality. Also, [it] will not change study habits of students. [It means] too much money [needs to be spent] for each child. Parents do not have that type of money, especially in this economy. We have the right to freedom of expression and would like to keep it that way.“ [And] "its [sic] my right to wake up in the morning and have my own unique individuality.”
Mixed impact of school uniforms
A more important question is whether there is any evidence to show that mandatory uniform policies can lead to improved student outcomes.
Research shows mixed results: it’s true that some studies show a reduction in the incidence of misbehavior. But then, there are others that show an increase in student suspensions. A few others show no significant change in student misbehavior.
For example, a 2010 study in a large urban school district in the Southwest found that asking students to wear uniforms did not result in any change in the number of suspensions for elementary school students.
In fact, middle and high school students experienced a significant increase in suspensions.
By contrast, a 2003 study that used a large national data set concluded that elementary and middle schools with school uniforms had fewer student behavior problems.
But, again, it found that high schools had a greater frequency of misbehavior.
Interestingly, even when evidence is available, educators’ perceptions could be at odds with it. For example, a study of educators in 38 North Carolina high schools found that 61% of the responding principals and assistant principals believed that there was a reduction in cases of misbehavior on campus when school uniforms were introduced. In reality, the data showed no change in incidents of crime, violence and suspensions.
Similarly, research on the efficacy of school uniforms on increasing student attendance and achievement is conflicted. For example, one study concluded that school uniforms resulted in increased student achievement and increased attendance.
However, another study found little impact on academics at all levels and little evidence of improvement in attendance for girls and drop in attendance for boys.
Implications for policy
So, what does lack of consistent research mean for policy?
In my view, it does not mean that schools should not implement such policies. It does mean, however, that educators must be clear about the goals that they hope to achieve with mandating school uniforms.
There is often a cost associated with mandatory school uniform policies. Lawsuits and community reactions can take up scarce resources of time and money.
Decreased discipline problems, increased attendance and increased academic achievement may not be achieved just by wearing khaki and blue. But there may be other benefits, such as, it could help a school promote its brand through a uniform look. School uniform may also serve as symbol of commitment to academic achievement.
The point is that clarity of purpose and outcome is necessary before students don their uniform in the morning.
I believe school uniforms may be part of a broad array of programs and approaches that a school may adopt to bring change. However, as a standalone measure, it implies that schools are simply trying to find an easy fix for difficult and complex problems.
School uniforms alone cannot bring about a sustained or large-scale change.