Dressing for Success: The Herd Mentality Examined

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Newsroom

As the academic year kicks off, the perennial debate over what kids wear to class remains a hot topic nationwide.

Kari Alterman is a fan of school uniforms. Growing up, the Franklin resident said they minimized distraction and leveled the playing field at Detroit Country Day, the local private school she attended. To Alterman, the uniform set the stage for a serious learning environment. “It was just totally different,” she said. “How you dress really does influence how you behave.”

Wearing school uniforms through ninth grade and having a strict dress code in high school limited social pressures and encouraged students to prioritize the inside over the outside, she recalled.

“I think it allows kids to shine for who they are and not what they have,” she said.

From Nutley, N.J., to Chandler, Ariz., and countless other neighborhoods in between, the debate over school uniforms and dress codes becomes topic du jour as classes resume for the fall semester. While some of the country’s grittier inner-city school districts, like Detroit Public Schools, have mandated a dress code for years, the debate mushroomed nationally 15 years ago.

Back in 1996, President Clinton thrust the topic in the national spotlight following his State of the Union address. During that speech the president stated, “If it means that teenagers will stop killing one another over designer jackets, then our public schools should be able to require their students to wear uniforms.”

Soon after that, Clinton visited Long Beach, Calif., where the first district-wide mandatory school-uniform policy in the country was enjoying seemingly remarkable success. In a speech to attendees at a local school, he announced an order he recently signed that instructed the secretary of education to send to all school districts across the nation a newly drafted Manual on School Uniforms, which was modeled on districts like Long Beach.

Since then, the myth that uniforms act as a quantifiable emulsifier for social unrest has been debunked.

In the case of Long Beach, the initial reports concerning drops in crime and discipline were astonishing. Assault dropped by 67 percent, vandalism by 82 percent and robbery by 35 percent the first year the policy was in place. A University of Notre Dame study conducted to investigate the seeming miracle, where proponents specifically cited the change in dress code as the primary catalyst for the 73 percent overall reduction in crime, revealed that several other reforms were enacted simultaneously, or just prior to the dress code mandate. Uniforms were just the most visible component.

However, the debate continues, and even though Alterman didn’t pick a school for her two daughters based on its uniform policy — the girls’ school, Farmington Hills-based Hillel Day School of Metropolitan Detroit has a dress code but no set uniform — she said she hopes schools in the broader community one day embrace the practice of adopting uniforms.

“It’s on the list of issues that come up every year and Hillel revisits from time to time,” said Steve Friedman, head of school at the Hebrew day school. “Consistency of enforcement is key,” he said, “sometimes a greater issue than the policy itself.”

The school instituted a stricter dress code seven years ago that ruled out blue jeans, sweatpants, athletic wear and baggy clothes, including items with writing on them. The new rules also put the kibosh on tank- and halter-tops, which seems like a natural exclusion, anyway, at a Jewish day school.

Friedman believes the modifications led to positive changes in school atmosphere. And, because there was no uniform imposed, it continued to let students pick their clothes within “a framework,” expecting they will “rise to the occasion,” he explained. “We’re prepared to keep it this way because we feel it strikes a balance.”

Matt Buesing was a member on his hometown’s school board in New Jersey when it implemented a school-uniform policy in fall 2003. Eight years later, the policy is still in place and, he says, successful. “It gets reviewed every year and tweaked,” he added.

Now a school marketing coordinator affiliated with French Toast School Uniforms, he said 22 percent of all public schoolchildren wear some form of uniform dress to school every day, whether it’s full uniform or policies that favor solid polo shirts and khaki pants but prohibit denim, jeans or hooded sweatshirts. “It’s just a more professional look,” he explained.

Over the last two years, the growth in the number of school districts discussing or implementing a school-uniform policy has gone up 7 percent, he said, citing an increase of approximately 200,000 students each year.

He attributed some of the growth to tough economic times, arguing that districts are seeking to lessen the burden on parents by cutting wardrobe costs, and also the expected enhancement of the learning environment by changing its tone.

Buesing acknowledged that dress codes and uniforms are not silver bullets able to fix all social ills at school, but he argued it does foster an environment where teachers and administrators can focus on issues other than clothing discipline.

When he and fellow Middle Township, N.J., school-board members first passed the new uniform policy in 2003, the waves it caused made ripples across the Hudson when the New York Times called seeking comment.

“We get to the first day of school, and it’s a media circus — the New York Times is at the front door, we have the local television stations there — and nothing happened; kids came, and nothing happened,” Buesing said. “Everyone got so worked up thinking we were going to have burning polo shirts in the front yard.”

If Clinton’s 1996 remarks brought the issues of dress code and conduct to the fore, the Columbine High School tragedy three years later served to light the issue on fire.Ever since that fateful moment, “school leaders have been grasping at any policy that could contribute to a more civil, safe and tolerant school environment,” observed Jay Goldman, editor of the monthly magazine School Administrator.

So enthusiastic are American families about uniforms that this year they will spend $1.5 billion on them — triple what they spent just two years ago.

By themselves, said Goldman, “school uniforms are not the answer to higher achievement or to closing the gap between minority and majority students.”

Wick Elementary school in Romulus, Mich., is set to take up a mandatory school-uniform policy this fall. A Romulus Community Schools representative explained that uniforms at Wick would be a pilot study to help determine whether the  policy would be extended to other schools.

Buesing said Detroit has been one of the top five school uniform markets in America, in terms of most children in uniform since the school-uniform movement began.
Fifteen percent of students in Michigan wear school uniforms, he added, with most of that 15 percent coming from Detroit proper.

Still, for many, the jury remains out on the impact uniforms themselves have on students’ learning.

Ryan Yeung, who studies education policy, researched the uniform issue as a Ph.D. student at Syracuse University, looking at kids from similar backgrounds in schools with or without school-uniform policies. His research suggested that children in schools with school uniforms do not seem to do better than kids in schools without school uniforms in terms of test scores.

“It was surprising; I would have thought that the kids with the school uniforms would have done better,” he said. “There’s a lot of sociological theory that suggests that uniforms have a transformative effect on individuals because once you start wearing a uniform, you start adopting the norms of that social institution.”

A uniform-wearer at a Brooklyn intermediate school, IS 383, during the mid-1990s, Yeung said it was the education the students went on to get and the backgrounds they came from, as opposed to what they wore, that enhanced their education. “My experience is that the places where school uniforms work, they’re really kind of tangential to the process,” he said.

Ask a 16-year-old about uniforms at a school that doesn’t require them, and you might encounter a hard sell.

“I think that the addition of a uniform would take away the flavor from everyday life at school,” said Noah Newman, who attends Bloomfield Hills Andover High. “It makes everyone the same; there’s no diversity. For some people, the way they dress is how they express themselves, and without that, I think it takes part of high school away.”

Tzvi Klugerman , incoming head of school at Akiva Hebrew Day School in Southfield, said he believes in a dress code but not a uniform as ideal. Students at Akiva wear uniforms during first-fifth grade and follow a dress code from sixth grade on, which matches what he says are the need students have by sixth grade to develop “their own sense of style.”

“I feel that’s the best time to start to train them and educate them on how to balance the need for personal style with the obligations and limits imposed by Halachah [Torah law],” he said. Klugerman added that schools he has worked in have always vetoed uniforms in favor of dress codes.

On a community-wide level, he pointed to the fact that some groups in the Jewish community wear uniforms ad infinitum. “In Chasidic communities, its always black coat, black hat,” he said. “So their sense of uniform and community norm extends way past the school years into adulthood and even into old age.”

For a Modern Orthodox school, he thinks a dress code is the way to go to have the students balance it all out.

In the end, Klugerman and his Hillel Day School counterpart, Steve Friedman, expressed similar views about the need for consistency and enforcement of school rules, whether that’s jackets and ties, some form of dress code or neither.

“If you’re coming to the school, you’re buying into it,” Klugerman said.

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