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Uniforms don't dress our students for success

I have a visceral aversion to uniforms. Whether they're on military personnel, police or the local movie usher, a uniform broadcasts an odd combination of authority and lack of autonomy. It's as though you're confronting the Borg _ which, for those uninitiated into Star Trek: The Next Generation parlance, is an alien society where cybernetically altered humanoids are part of a collective consciousness.

So when the question of whether uniforms should be adopted for public school children comes up, I knee-jerk a big, fat "no!"

The very idea of making students dress alike, forcing conformity and group-think on them at a time when they are exploring who they are, is more than depressing. It's destructive. Sure, Japanese school children wear uniforms to school and grow up dutiful and obedient. But Japanese companies are having to look to the West for invention, dynamism and entrepreneurial zeal. Wonder why that is?

Supporters of uniforms in public schools say they're the answer to today's school discipline, attendance and under-achievement problems. They attribute to khaki pants and a collared shirt all the potency of Dr. Brown's magical elixir: It'll cure what ails you.

Fingers point to Long Beach, Calif., where a districtwide uniform policy for elementary and middle school students has been in effect since 1994. Long Beach officials have declared that uniforms have turned their schools around, reducing serious campus crimes by 90 percent and increasing student attendance to almost 95 percent. The results were so startling that they caught the attention of both our nation's top nannies, President Bill Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno, who have mentioned Long Beach's uniforms approvingly.

Without anything more than anecdotal evidence and gushing testimonial, school districts across the country lined up to join the rush. Even the New York City Board of Education adopted uniforms for pre-K through eighth-grade students at schools that opt for them. And last week the Polk County School Board became one of the first in the nation to implement mandatory uniforms for elementary and middle school students with no opt-out for parents.

Dissenting voices that raised such trifles as freedom of expression, individuality and parental prerogatives got drowned out in the mad dash for a cheap, easy fix to intractable school problems. As if by wearing the right color pants little Johnny will suddenly concentrate on schoolwork, despite mommy's alcoholism and daddy's anger-control issues.

Zealots called for parental heads if they refused to comply. Polk County School Superintendent Glenn Reynolds went so far as to say that parents who don't dress their kids in the requisite clothes will be "contributing to the delinquency of a child," and should be prosecuted.

What's been missing from all the emotion-charged rhetoric are facts.

That's why, while at the University of Notre Dame, sociologists David Brunsma and Kerry Rockquemore examined the claims that uniforms make students better, using empirical research and statistical analysis.

Their findings? Claims by uniform supporters are bunk.

As reported in the Journal of Educational Research, Brunsma and Rockquemore found that uniforms had no effect on behavioral problems, attendance or a student's use of drugs or alcohol. And as for student achievement, it turns out students in uniform do worse on standardized tests than their non-uniformed counterparts. The study, which controlled for variables such as race, gender, parental education, income and student-tracking, also found that uniforms do not increase pro-school attitudes among students. According to the researchers, about the best that can be said about the so-called "uniform effect" is that it's like "cleaning and brightly painting a deteriorating building in that on the one hand, it grabs our immediate attention but on the other, is, after all, really only a coat of paint."

As for Long Beach's experience, the researchers conclude it had been misread. At the same time uniforms were introduced so were other school enhancements. "It seems curious," wrote Brunsma and Rockquemore, "that given these substantive reform efforts, administrators continue to insist that uniforms are the sole factor causing a variety of positive outcome."

Without a compelling education-based justification, the government should not be allowed to dress your child. I applaud those parents willing to fight this gimmicky trend. Uniforms on children teach them it's important to blend into the crowd. Subversion of individuality is the goal; stand-outs are punished.

It's a Borg mentality and, unfortunately, it's coming soon to a school near you.