It is an overused harangue by the critics of public schools: Educators have lost their focus and spend too much time worrying about things that have little to do with educating children. As broad and hackneyed as that argument may be, there are times when it has a ring of truth. This is one of those times.
Superintendent Wayne Alexander has decided that students need a stricter dress code. This surprisingly misplaced priority comes at a time when:
• The district is struggling to cope with declining revenues.
• There is a very active debate about magnet schools and ways in which to expand programs for gifted education.
• Standardized test scores are unacceptable at too many schools.
• It is becoming more difficult to retain quality teachers.
• Portable classrooms have become the norm at some schools even though taxpayers are generously funding new-school construction and renovations at existing schools.
• The vocational-technical education program is overdue for restructuring.
• Alexander reportedly is about to unveil an organizational shakeup that has visions of pink slips dancing in the heads of deadwood employees.
So, tinkering with the student dress code, especially at this time, seems to be a waste of time. The existing code (see accompanying text) is entirely adequate — if school administrators enforce it consistently and evenly. The overwhelming majority of students adhere to the code. The parameters of what is not acceptable are spelled out, as are the punishments for violating the dress code. It is the small percentage of those students — and their parents — who disregard the rules that principals and assistant principals need to hold accountable.
There is no evidence that it is necessary to restrict students' clothing beyond what the current policy already specifies. Administrators and teachers have the authority to curtail any behavior that interferes with learning; they should use that authority.
Perhaps if Alexander instructs his on-site administrators to crack down on dress code violations, he will gather enough empirical evidence to justify his request for the board to beef up the dress code. But until such time, he should stay focused on the district's more pressing problems.
Also worrisome is that Alexander is calling this a "universal dress code for K-8,'' but it resembles a back-door attempt to implement mandatory school uniforms for all students in those grades. If so, the School Board needs to ascertain the intent, the expected result and be sure that it is a wise course of action, especially at the middle school level.
There clearly is a need for rules about clothing, but those rules should focus on behavior, not self-expression. An overwritten policy, or a roundabout switch to uniforms to avoid the core issue of conduct, makes the adults look like the kids.
This is not to say Alexander is not doing a good job. By most accounts, he has excelled in putting fresh eyes on stale problems, and his enthusiasm has energized many employees and parents who had become complacent and uninspired. That is why it is surprising to see him latch on to a nonissue like this.
Instruct your people to enforce the dress code that already is in place, Dr. Alexander, and stay focused on more important issues.