Out of Uniform

The Board of Education's ballyhooed school dress code may not be so smart

At P.S.191 in Manhattan, a class of nine-year-olds prepared to leave the lunchroom, forming a double-file line running the length of the school's central corridor. "All eyes are on the head in front of you," barked their teacher. "Hands at your side, and mouths quiet." The students knew the routine, and like tiny cadets instinctively fell into line. Well, not exactly. One boy, clad in a knee-length black T-shirt emblazoned with a WWF wrestler, yelled to a classmate standing several rows ahead. Order quickly gave way to a mass of bubbling bodies.

Undoubtedly this scene will be replayed countless times in New York City public schools, which opened last week. And while critics have long argued that unruliness in the classroom is a major problem, others question whether the Board of Ed's new policy—requiring school uniforms—will actually improve discipline and academic performance.

Last March, the board unanimously passed a measure requiring all students to wear uniforms at the elementary and middle school level beginning next fall. This year alone, more than 250 public schools citywide have adopted a uniform policy, though parents and individual schools can apply for an exemption. In part, the board's mandate reads: "Students have demonstrated improved performance due, in part, to the work-like atmosphere and pride that is engendered by the wearing of uniforms." Since no major studies on the relationship between school uniforms and classroom behavior—or, for that matter, academic performance—have ever been done, the board, in particular its president William Thompson, based the requirement on a few classroom visits and talking to school officials.

But did the board's "research" lead to the right conclusion? An informal survey of some of the city's grade schools conducted by the Voice found that school uniforms have had little or no effect on academic performance. Since many public schools already have established uniform policies, it is worth taking a look at how they compare.

At P.S.133 in East Harlem, about 85 percent of the students regularly wear uniforms (the policy has been in place since 1990, says school principal Nancy Beazer). At P.S.92, also located in East Harlem, roughly 30 percent wear uniforms. But in virtually every other respect—overall size, location, ethnicity, and economic background of the students, as well as teacher aptitude and experience—the schools are mirror images.

On the most recent New York City Annual School Reports, which measure reading and math competency for various grade levels, 49.4 percent of the pupils at P.S.133 scored at or above the state minimum level on the third-grade reading test, as compared to 53.9 percent at P.S.92. On the third-grade mathematics exam, 88.5 percent met the minimal requirements at P.S.133, while 87.2 percent did so at P.S.92. On the fifth-grade writing exam, 87.8 percent of the class was proficient at grade-level at P.S.133, compared to 92 percent at P.S.92. And on the sixth-grade reading exam, 62.5 percent were at grade-level at P.S.133, compared to 58.3 percent at P.S.92.

According to Peter Cookson, professor at Columbia University's Teachers College, the findings are not surprising. "Uniforms may help create a sense of order, which could contribute to an overall climate that's better for learning. But the link between uniforms and achievement is hardly direct, which makes the rationale behind the mandate questionable, at best." This sentiment is echoed by some parents, who also complain that the policy ignores the financial constraints faced by many families who cannot afford school uniforms, which can cost upwards of $100. (At least one parent has already sued in federal court over the city's uniform policy.)

Another example is C.E.S.55 (kindergarten to grade six) and C.E.S.110 (prekindergarten to grade four) in the Bronx. The schools have differing uniform policies: at C.E.S.55, an estimated three out of four students wear uniforms, while approximately one in 10 does at C.E.S.110. In most other respects, the two schools are similar. And nothing in their statewide exam scores reflect any academic benefit from wearing school uniforms. C.E.S.55 reported that 45.2 percent of its third-grade students read at or above New York State minimum level, while, at C.E.S.110, the figure was 64 percent. On the third-grade mathematics exam, 80.1 percent of students met the minimum level at C.E.S.55, while 89.5 percent did so at C.E.S.110.

J.D. LaRock, spokesperson for the Board of Education, cautioned that comparisons of this kind overlook intangibles that may also affect academic performance. "The bottom line is that a school is a very complex place," he said. "To try to assess at any point, a statistical difference would have to also take into account a number of other factors: changes in a school's funding, its administration, its instructional focus."

Some opponents of the board's requirement now say that an examination of annual school reports, which were not widely available, could have given them the firepower to stop the mandate before it passed. "We knew about the reports," said Kathleen Berger, president of School Boards for Equality, Accountability, and Community. "It was all we could do, with so little time, to argue that the mandate was not the board's decision to make, much less that its rationale for passing it was entirely wrong."

"Uniforms may get rid of competition like 'Who got Tommy Hilfiger, who got Polo?'" says Leetina Williams, whose two daughters attend P.S.63 in the East Village, "but they've got nothing to do with what goes on inside the classroom."

 
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