School dress codes were originally what you would find at parochial or private institutions. You wouldn’t find them at public schools very often, and if you did, it might involve not wearing something with offensive writing. Now there is a movement to require specific uniforms at all grade levels in many communities.
70% of students think that wearing a school uniform will help them to fit in with their peers. 90% of teachers believe that the presence of a dress code that includes a standardized look helps to stop bullying among students.
There might be benefits to consider with school dress codes, but there are some cost disadvantages for parents to manage as well. It may cost over $600 more per child to stay in compliance with a district’s rules about clothing, which means a family of six with two parents or guardians could spend $2,400 or more on apparel than if they went to a school without these policies.
Several advantages and disadvantages of school dress codes that take a deeper look at this subject can help to further the debate on this topic. Which side do you support?
List of the Advantages of School Dress Codes
1. A school dress code can help students dress for safety.
More schools adopt some form of a dress code each year despite frequent challenges to the constitutionality of such an action in the United States. Most court rulings support this idea when instituted fairly because there is a legitimate use of them to keep kids safe. According to the National School Board Association, up to 135,000 guns are brought to the more than 85,000 public schools in the U.S. each year. Having a dress code that requires a student’s beltline exposed reduces the fear of a concealed weapon.
2. Dress codes at school can reduce acts of violence.
Having a dress code at school promotes a more positive educational environment. About 1 in 4 schools in the country takes this idea to the point of requiring uniforms. The goal of this effort is to reduce other forms of violence that can occur due to socioeconomic differences. Ensuring that every student looks relatively the same reduces the chances of bullying while class is in session.
3. School dress codes help kids stay focused on their education.
When students wear the same outfit or one that follows the guidelines of the school, then there are fewer concerns with how each person can fit in with their peers. Creating uniformity on campus with clothing options reduces the visual comparisons that students make about the socioeconomic status of each person.
Girls at the elementary level have higher language test scores when there is a school dress code in place. There are better scores for math and science in some demographics as well.
4. The use of a dress code can help to enhance school and community pride.
When students follow a specific dress code at school, then there are often higher levels of local pride associated with such an action. Over 1,000 middle schools in Texas were studied to look at the impact of uniforms in the classroom, and the researchers noted that there were significantly higher positive perceptions about the entire community when compared to those who could wear almost whatever they wanted each day.
When there is a sense of belonging created in the classroom, then there are higher levels of caring, respect, and trust throughout the school. It helps students to feel like they are part of a team instead of trying to do everything by themselves.
5. Some schools see an improvement in attendance with uniforms.
The average absence rate for students in middle or high school falls by about 7% after uniforms or a specific school dress code becomes enforced. There might still be some behavioral issues that teachers and administrators must handle each day, but the problems shift toward concerns with less severity. The benefits of this advantage can include a lower suspension rate and a higher graduation percentage.
When John Adams Middle School in Albuquerque, NM implemented a mandatory uniform program, their discipline referrals dropped from over 1,500 to about 400 in a single semester. The presence of a dress code creates a more disciplined environment, lower noise levels, and less waiting time to start class.
6. The presence of a school dress code can prevent gang affiliation colors.
The U.S. Department of Education supports a strict school dress code that can include uniforms because it prevents gang displays. The goal is to prevent gang members from showing their insignias or colors while in the classroom, thereby creating a safer learning environment for everyone. About 1 in 10 kids during the 2015 academic year said that there were gang members at their schools, so taking them out of their “uniform” to put them into one mandated by the district can have a positive impact on learning.
This advantage makes it more of a challenge for student gang members to recruit new people while going to class as well.
7. School dress codes make it easier for students to get ready for class in the morning.
Parents and kids spend less time trying to decide what to wear to school when there is a standard dress code in place. When wardrobe battles disappear in the family, then it gives children more time to manage their morning routine. That means there are opportunities to sleep in more before trying to catch the bus or make it to the classroom. The Lyndhurst School District in New Jersey credits the implementation of a mandatory uniform as the reason for a reduction in tardiness.
8. It is possible for a school dress code or mandatory uniform policy to cost less.
Even though the cost of a uniform or specific clothing items may be more than standardized apparel, there are fewer apparel items that need to be purchased during the year. A study of costs in this area that took place in the United Kingdom found that the cost of purchasing school uniforms was less than $130 per outfit, but the apparel chosen for out-of-school activities averaged more than $160.
77% of U.S. school leaders say that the average annual cost of school uniforms per child is about $150 or less. Parents that shop with brands like French Toast can purchase an entire uniform set for $45, and the average student only requires two sets to get them through the school year.
9. Many of the rules of a dress code abide by common sense needs.
Even though every school might have a different apparel standard that they follow, almost every district follows a common theme. Students must follow a fingertip rule when evaluating the length of skirts or shorts, with the item extending beyond the hand – and this rule applies to boys and girls. Kids are not allowed to show their stomachs, while some may extend that to the shoulders as well.
Any shirts with profanity printed on them are instantly disallowed. Schools typically look at the idea of an “R” rating like you would see for a movie or video game to decide permissibility. If there are illegal acts, sexual content, or violent idealism displayed on the clothing, then they are prohibited.
10. Dress codes help administrators to instantly identify trespassers.
When everyone in the school is dressed in the same way, then the presence of a dress code makes it easier to spot someone who is out of place. This advantage also works in reverse by helping teachers to identify their students when they are on a field trip. It is another tool that can help to create safer classrooms because an emergency response can initiate instantly if needed, including “soft” lockdowns, since the individual not following the rules will stand out immediately.
11. Most school dress codes allow for individualization.
Dress codes restrict what type of clothing students can wear when going to school, but they have fewer restrictions on what accessories are permissible in the classroom. Most kids can wear earrings, necklaces, headbands, or bracelets that allow them to express their individuality. Some items may be specifically prohibited, like how the Tulsa school district restricts scarves, bandanas, or curlers inside of school buildings.
Most districts give students a palette of colors from which to choose as well, often ranging from white to blue to yellow, with khaki or tan pants, slacks, or skirts permitted.
List of the Disadvantages of School Dress Codes
1. Dress codes at school restrict a person’s freedom of expression.
A Supreme Court decision in 1969 in Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent Community School District found that teachers and students don’t lose their rights to freedom of speech and expression just because they go to a classroom. A follow-up case in 1970 found that compelling conformity to specific appearance standards doesn’t seem to be a justifiable component of the education process in the United States.
Restricting what students can wear removes the ability to create empowering moments that can lead to maturity. It forces them to comply with someone else’s standard of appropriateness, which only teaches conformity.
2. It eliminates the strength of diversity from the school.
Enforcing a standardized dress code eliminates the benefits of diversity that can help students gain a broader foundation of knowledge in the classroom. Teachers might discuss the role that people like Martin Luther King, Jr. or Rosa Parks played in the Civil Rights Movement and how they expressed themselves, but then enforce a specific rule on students about the length of a dress or the width of a tank top strap.
Many schools use gender-based uniforms or dress codes to create conformity in the name of safety. Students who are gender-nonconforming, gender-fluid, or transgendered will feel ostracized by this structure. Forcing kids to wear something that might be uncomfortable for them can have devastating impacts on their mental health.
3. School dress codes do not always stop violence.
According to Dr. Tony Volk, an Associate Professor at Brock University, there is no evidence to support that school dress codes and uniforms can reduce violence or bullying. When the Miami-Dade County Public Schools implemented a mandatory uniform policy, the number of violent incidents in their middle schools nearly doubled after just one year. When these policies receive implementation in the most violent schools statistically in the United States, the number of assaults rises by more than a dozen each year.
When Texas Southern University looked at this specific disadvantage, they found that disciplinary incidents rose by more than 10% after the introduction of a uniform-based school dress code.
4. School dress codes have zero effect on attendance or preparedness.
A study out of Virginia Tech that looked at school dress codes and uniforms found that there was no effect on behavioral problems or absenteeism when these rules were enforced on campus. It had no impact on the substance abuse behaviors in the classroom, and the impact on peer attitudes was found to be minimal. This study even found that some students performed worse on tests when uniforms were mandated, with the impact equal for elementary students and eighth-graders.
5. A standard dress code can be challenging to enforce.
Many schools go from having no dress code to having one as a way to explore the benefits of these rules. The districts that make this transition typically go to a mandatory uniform policy afterward because a dress code can take up a lot of time in discipline. The skirts or shorts might not be long enough, or the pants that boys wear might sit too low on their hips. Kids tend to spend more time in the office, away from their learning opportunities, because their apparel violates some kind of rule.
6. Dress codes can emphasize the socioeconomic divisions they try to eliminate.
Most of the schools that implement a strict dress code or a mandatory uniform policy tend to be in the poorest neighborhoods of the community. The National Center for Education found that 47% of high-poverty public school districts or institutions required a uniform compared to just 6% of low-poverty schools. Even the quality of the apparel cannot conceal the differences between those who have some money and those who don’t have much.
Affluent families tend to purchase more uniforms per child, which means the clothing doesn’t wear out as quickly. Kids that come from poor families tend to wear apparel that is faded, torn, and tattered. It only takes a maximum of 60 days from the beginning of the school year for students to figure out who has more money.
7. School dress codes can emphasize racial divisions in a community.
Schools that have a minority population of 50% or more are four times more likely to require a strict dress code than schools with 20% to 49% demographic. When the percentage drops below 20%, then they are 24% more likely to require some type of uniform as part of the educational process. Because this issue impacts the poorest school districts around the world most often, up to 800,000 kids are wearing clothes that don’t fit them correctly because their families are unable to afford new items.
8. Most students do not support the idea of a strict dress code.
Adults can have their own opinions about the advantages and disadvantages of school dress codes and if they work. If you ask the students what they think about these policies, you’ll find that a significant majority of them prefer regular clothing. 90% of junior high students report that they didn’t like wearing uniforms to researchers from the University of Nevada-Reno. 81% of middle school students in Long Beach, CA said that a strict dress code did nothing to reduce fights, while 3 out of 4 of them said that the rules didn’t help them to feel more connected to the school or the community.
9. Implementing school dress codes doesn’t solve genuine problems in the classroom.
The forced implementation of a strict dress code can detract from more useful efforts to boost student performance or reduce on-campus crime. Instead of spending funds on the enforcement of a student’s apparel, that money could be used to reduce classroom sizes, improve security, or encourage higher levels of parental involvement. Unless the root causes of a problem receive some attention, then changing how students look is a temporary fix at best.
10. Strict dress codes serve the interest of retailers more than students.
The United States spends over $1 billion each year on school uniforms and apparel items that meet strict, mandatory dress codes. J.C. Penney reports that these items are one of the essential products that they carry each year, while Lands’ End spends over $3 million per year to market their items to public schools across the country. Many of the studies that promote the effectiveness of a mandatory policy were even funded, in whole or in part, by the brands that create products for the students to wear in the first place. Even Walmart is getting in on this action by creating specific areas in their clothing departments to facilitate the display of apparel.
11. The implementation of dress code rules is usually reactionary.
The lengthy school shooting attack in Littleton, CO at Columbine High School in 1999 had a profound impact on an entire generation of students. When Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold turned their guns on teachers and students before taking their lives, one of the behaviors noted was the deep-pocketed trench coats that the students wore. After the attack, many districts changed their rules to prevent certain clothing items from being worn to prevent another incident.
Low-cut shirts, high-cut skirts and shorts, and questionable messages can also create issues in schools within the student body. By taking a reactionary approach, there is never any certainty available
It is true that the regulation of the length of apparel or the content of what students choose to wear is not part of the “pure” speech and self-expression that the Constitution rightly guards in the United States. The right to implement a mandatory uniform policy or strict dress code was unanimously upheld in 2001, stating that the desire to increase test scores or improve discipline does not suppress free speech. There are other mediums available to them to express their opinion.
The issue that often comes up with this topic is one of consistency. Many of the schools that implement a strict dress code do not enforce those rules on the adults while on-campus. Most parents have the ability to make their own clothing choices as well. Denying that opportunity to older teens and grade school students could reduce their readiness for the “real” world.
The advantages and disadvantages of school dress codes have been up for debate since 1994 when the Long Beach, CA school district implemented a mandatory uniform policy for all K-8 students. Over 20 states in the U.S. specifically authorized schools to institute these rules. With conflicting research available about each key point, it falls on each community and family to determine what benefits or problems the implementation of these policies might cause.
Keith Miller has over 25 years of experience as a CEO and serial entrepreneur. As an entrepreneur, he has founded several multi-million dollar companies. As a writer, Keith's work has been mentioned in CIO Magazine, Workable, BizTech, and The Charlotte Observer. If you have any questions about the content of this blog post, then please send our content editing team a message here.