Every year at this time I receive a flurry of questions from parents throughout the country. They either want to know how their children should dress for school or whether they should vote for or against a dress code or uniform program that is being proposed. When I write on the subject the greatest number of responses I receive are condemnations of my narrow minded out of date view of dress. This is often from parents whose children are attending schools that are going to or at least thinking about putting in a dress code or even worse in their opinion putting the kids in uniforms.
Every year taxpayers throughout the country are asked to support spending programs to improve their local schools. The argument for such expenditure is usually that it will help the children learn because the environment does impact education. What they fail to realize is that clothing is a portable environment that affects not only the wearer but everyone with whom he or she interacts.
The very same people who propose to spend taxpayers money to improve the learning environment, in most cases would not consider instituting a dress code for teachers and students. Their arguments against it run the gamut but the most interesting one is, it would interfere with the freedom of students or teachers. Many claim that what you wear is your way of announcing to the world who you are and that students and teachers should be able to make any statement they wish. It’s a form of free speech and protected by the Constitution.
Years ago I ran a research project in which I compared two inner-city schools. In the first school the teachers dressed very casually and in the second the teachers wore more traditional attire, sport jackets for the men and similar attire for the women. The dress code in the second school was put in by the principal but I doubt with the teachers union he could do that today. Nevertheless, it was a very effective educational tool since the second school out performed the first in every academic area.
In two middle range suburban schools that had a dress code for the teachers but only one had a dress code for the students, the one with the dress code for students outperformed the other in academic achievement and college admissions.
I found these findings support the premise that what the students wore affected how well they performed academically. However, the study I conducted at that time in two schools in very affluent areas found that the dress of the students did not affect the academic performance or their college admissions. Since this did not support my original premise I decided to redo it today. Once again the students dress did not seem to impact how well they performed academically or how many went to college .
I was so surprised that I asked the teachers who were doing me a favor by collecting data in their schools to take pictures of the students on a typical day. There was definitely a difference between the school with a dress code and the one without. While approximately 80% of the students in the school without a dress code would have fit in at the dress code school, 20% definitely would not. Their dress ranged from avant-garde, kooky fashionable to sexy and/or sloppy. In hopes of reconciling my research with these new findings, I arranged to have a conference call with both teachers.
The teachers talked to each other before the conference call and agreed that the school with the dress code had higher academic standards than the school without a dress code. Although the students marks were virtually the same, their performance wasn’t necessarily the same. They went on to say that in both areas going to college was expected, if they didn’t go to a real college they went to “Anyone gets in U”. Sometimes in research, numbers do not tell the whole story.
While I recognize the unscientific nature of the study I think it does justify a major educational organization or the government conducting a study on the impact of dress codes on education. Only an organization with almost unlimited funds could do such a study on a national scale.
I will give them a head start by assuring them that teachers clothing does indeed affect the learning process.
When teaching at a prep school in Connecticut I ran a study in which I took two sets of teachers and varied their dress morning and afternoon. They changed from traditional suits, shirts and ties and black lace up shoes to sports jackets with open collar shirts and loafers. Which at the time and in that affluent school was quite casual but acceptable for a male teacher.
When we questioned the students about who they liked and with whom they worked best, 87% picked the sports coat teachers. However, when we measured the amount of time students spent on identical assignments. we found they worked harder and longer for the more traditional dressers. When we asked why, they said he was more demanding. What was even more significant was all students were given identical tests at the end of the semester, when the same teacher dressed more conservatively his students performed better.
So the next time the Board of Education asks you to dress up the school building, tell them that first you would like them to dress up the people who use it.