Friday, July 5, 2013

My Take On "Standardized Dress" in Schools

I have a friend whose daughter has hot pink hair.  The daughter, a recent high school graduate, is a very talented artist and and will be attending an elite college of art on scholarship this fall.  This is just one of countless examples of the fact that success, in any form, does not correlate with conformity.

I think that everyone needs at least one way to express themselves; without an outlet, it's easy to have anger, sadness, and craziness build up inside us. 

The point of both of these things is this: I am completely opposed to what is now being termed as "standardized dress" in schools.  Uniforms.  Strict dress codes.  Not only do I think that mandating what students wear to school is a waste of time, but I also think there are aspects of a uniform dress policy that can be detrimental to the futures of our children.

I work in the field of special education, and I witness on a daily basis how individuals with special needs and/or differences have to cope with everyday skills and tasks.  Many individuals struggle with motor skills and other things that affect their ability to perform activities of daily living such as dressing; often they or their parents resort to using compensatory strategies such as having the children wear elastic-waist pants, velcro shoes, and shirts with no buttons.  It goes without saying that these children already have to contend with countless barriers and to work extra-hard to be included in many activities about which most of us don't give a second thought.  Advocates of standardized dress policies often say that they will include a loop-hole in their rules that allow students with special needs to be exempt from their directive, but to me it seems that this will only serve to set apart these individuals and to highlight their disabilities even more.  In fact, I'm not sure that such a dispensation doesn't violate the law and the civil rights of students with disabilities who attend a school with such a policy.

In the "con" column in the dress-code discussion, I can say that I have seen a good bit of instructional time lost due to the need for teaching staff to monitor and discipline students with regards to dress code violations.  It goes without saying that teachers need to be, well, teaching, instead of policing - and defending that police work to students, administrators, and parents - over an issue like clothing.

Another "con" that I can clearly see is the lack of opportunity for students to make choices about their apparel; in the majority of situations in which high school students enter after graduation, they will have options for dress and need practice with parental guidance of how to make those selections in a reasonable manner.

One common argument of the pro-dress code group is that the establishment of such levels the playing field between social cliques, but I am left to wonder how that works if students are still left to choose the brand of the clothing they wear (Ralph Lauren vs. Wal-Mart brand of khakis and polo shirts) and the shoes and accessories worn.  Do the pro-dress code people think kids won't notice who drives what car or lives in what house or goes on what vacations?  Do they really think "popular" can be rubbed out?  If so, I wonder if we should take things a step further and abolish extracurricular activities including sports and Student Council - and the giving of grades and class rankings.  In fact, maybe all children should have their hair cut and dyed to look just alike - and plastic surgery on their faces and bodies so that they are all just cookie-cutter versions of the same person.

Another commonly used argument in the "pro" column is that having students wear a uniform serves to keep them safe, as it allows school staff to easily identify an outsider or an intruder on the school grounds.  To that I simply say: as if our enemies are always from the outside - and as if an outsider can't obtain a uniform so that he or she blends right in amongst the student body, while those students are under the supervision of an incautious staff of school employees who have been lulled into a false sense of security.  

I have heard it said that a uniform policy helps students to focus by "cutting down on sexual tension" that may be present in settings without dress code practice.  But we all know girls who have modified a uniform in some way so as to express their individuality - and their sexuality, and honestly I have seen school girls in their school-approved plaid skirts with more skin showing than I would ever allow for a child walking out of my house.

Here's another bit of the battle cry of pro-uniform warriors: A standardized dress policy increases student test scores.  I have yet to see a valid study that shows any truth to this statement.  I would hypothesize that students who have their creativity (and their spirit, in my opinion) trampled impeded would tend to enjoy coming to school and learning less - and would therefore learn less and score lower on tests.  (I'm intentionally leaving out the whole discussion about whether or not the results on standardized tests show actual learning/knowledge/capacity for success here.)  I will go so far as to say that my take on the function of an educational system is to teach students the value of learning, to encourage in them the desire to become lifelong learners, and to give them the tools that will allow them to do so - and none of those things are tied to how they dress.

The weakest point of defense used by dress code advocates, in my opinion, is that having students wear a prescribed wardrobe every day saves time, energy, and/or money.  Again, I haven't seen any true evidence that speaks to this point.  I would think that the initial outlay of money in purchasing the required ensemble would be fairly significant, even if it is purchased at Wal-Mart or Target and even if a family only buys a couple of outfits and launders those frequently.  I have spoken to many parents of children whose schools have uniform mandates, and all of them say their kids have separate wardrobes for after-school/weekend wear; I am not great at math, but I don't see how having two wardrobes (one which may require dry cleaning or ironing, as an added consideration) saves time, energy, or money.

Added to the point above is my concern about the growing trend of what I call "deferred parenting;" by this I mean the increasing expectation of many parents that someone other than themselves will fulfill what was once a basic part of parenting, things like sex ed, driver's ed, religion, safety rules, city-wide curfews - and, yes, dress codes.  I think all of these issues are things that are to be handled within family units.  I am not under the expectation that school officials or anyone else set rules for how my children dress (nor am I willing to let someone else make that ruling) - nor how they believe, act, eat, or anything else, particularly in the case of issues like clothing that have nothing at all to do with the safety of my children or anyone else.

When I say that I oppose schools' having a dress code, I don't mean that I think kids should be allowed to wear (or, in some cases, not to wear) whatever they choose.  I don't think the wearing of vulgar, overly skin-baring, unsafe, or obviously distracting apparel works to anyone's benefit in an educational setting.  What I am against is a requirement that all students (oh, except those with disabilities ... ) dress alike, especially when such an edict is delivered without sufficient evidence that doing so is of benefit to the students and is necessary for productivity to occur.  The world of education is very focused on research and evidence in the principles and strategies we are using, and yet a mandate that is presented to our children on a daily basis is allowed to be put into place without basis.  From my perspective, at the very least there needs to be a two-sided discussion about the true pros and cons of such an adjudication, before the guidelines are made and handed down in a "take this medicine; it's for your own good" type of ruling.

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