School uniforms no guarantee of success

May 31, 2000|By Norris P. West

IN TWO years, Philadelphia will require its 217,000 public school students to wear uniforms.

This fall, the policy will be voluntary, like Baltimore's. But when the doors open to the 2001-2002 school year, uniforms will be mandatory in the City of Brotherly Love.

Good luck enforcing that policy, Philly. Eager elementary schoolchildren may have few qualms with matching outfits, but high school students without a cause are sure to rebel.

We will hear the familiar arguments: Uniforms stifle creativity and free expression just as new ideas are beginning to germinate in young minds. Dress alike and you'll think alike.

Of course, things don't work that way in other places where uniforms are mandatory. Take pro basketball. The red-and-black Bulls uniform didn't constrain Michael Jordan's creativity. And it certainly didn't reduce Dennis Rodman to a mere conformist.

Individuality certainly can thrive and flourish with matching attire -- whether the dress is for sports, the military or school. Gen. Douglas MacArthur was surely his own man, and the troops who fought under him were not prohibited from having minds of their own -- as long as they didn't question the supreme commander aloud.

The uniform gives members of the same group a sense of common purpose, and this can be good.

The main purpose of school uniforms is to remove unnecessary distractions. As the parent of three teen-agers, I'm acutely aware that students spend time comparing the value of Lugz to Fubu when they should be comparing the value of x and y in algebra.

Some uniform proponents believe that better academic performance and fewer disciplinary problems would result once the designer-label distraction is removed. There's not enough evidence of that.

Two years ago, a survey by the National Association of Elementary School Principals found that 52 percent of principals requiring uniforms reported improved performance. In the same year, researchers at Notre Dame University in Indiana found no evidence that uniforms raised academic performance but said they may provide "a visible and public symbol of commitment to school improvement and reform."

Inconclusive, but worth pursuing.

There is too much proof, however, that the designer-clothing alternative can be dangerous.

President Clinton supported school uniforms four years ago because of concern that children were being robbed and killed over designer clothes while going to and from school. Baltimore became the nation's first major school district to adopt a voluntary uniform policy because of that concern.

As you might imagine, Baltimore's elementary and middle schools have been more receptive than its high schools to uniforms. Southwestern, Walbrook, Northern, Northwestern and Frederick Douglass are the only high schools that ask students to wear common attire.

Southwestern High began its voluntary policy this year, said assistant principal Herschell Adams. The school orders $12 Polo shirts in five colors and with five different monograms -- one for each of Southwestern's academies. There are also sweaters and khakis. About one-fifth of the students comply with the voluntary policy.

In Anne Arundel County's Windsor Farm Elementary, about 80 percent of younger pupils and half of older students wear uniforms, says the principal, Wayne R. Bark. He believes the khakis and polo shirt uniform gives the school a sense of community, although it may have zero effect on grades and discipline in the high-performing school. "We just feel it evens the playing field," Mr. Bark said.

The Philadelphia experiment could tell us more conclusively than previous studies whether uniforms can help raise performance in failing urban schools. Don't think for a minute, however, that look-alike clothing is the magic potion. Teachers and parents still have to do their part.

But if performance inches upward in Philly schools, polo shirts and khakis could become the fashionable trend.

Norris P. West is a member of The Sun's editorial staff.

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