“We can do anything we want to do,” Betty Bagley, interim superintendent of McCormick School District, told the trustees at their December meeting.
“We’re not dealing with 30 elementary schools or 10 high schools getting on the same page. We’re dealing with a complex with less than 700 students,” she continued.
She challenged the trustees to “think differently,” saying they had a “golden opportunity” to make the district a laboratory.
Trustees could change the calendar, so that students’ vacations are spread evenly throughout the year rather than packed into the summer. Or they could extend the school day.
Implementation of a uniform dress code is the first of her suggestions the board will consider this calendar year. On Thursday, the district will host the first of two forums to gauge parents’ support for the proposal, and Bagley plans on bringing the board a formal proposal in March.
Although details have yet to be finalized, Bagley envisions students having a choice of wearing a collared navy, red or white shirt and navy, gray or khaki pants.
The number of students wearing uniforms has been growing in recent years.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 21 percent of public schools “reported they required students to wear uniforms” in the 2015-16 school year. In the 1999-00 school year, only 12 percent of public schools reported doing so.
McCormick would be an outlier in that only 7.9 percent of rural public schools require their students to wear uniforms, whereas more than 41 percent of urban schools do. But it would fit the pattern in another sense.
“A greater percentage of schools where 76 percent or more of students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch than of schools where lower percentages were eligible reported that they required school uniforms,” according to the NCES.
At the board’s January meeting, Bagley gave trustees a list of the pros and cons of uniform dress codes.
“It does cut down on discipline, it cuts down on tension between kids sometimes, when you can’t have a shirt that has certain things on because it’s too expensive,” Bagley said. “It just cuts down on competition that way. There are still ways for children to show their creativity, but sometimes the emphasis shouldn’t be on clothing.”
Other benefits, according to the list Bagley gave trustees, are improved attendance and student self-perception, fewer gang-related incidents and parental convenience. The cumulative impact of all those purported benefits, Bagley said, would be greater student achievement.
Her list acknowledged, however, that “research varies on whether there is a connection between uniforms and improved student achievement.” Uniforms could also limit students’ freedom of expression and, in turn, the development of their self-esteem and decision-making skills. And, of course, many children will probably loathe it.
“The empirical research regarding the effectiveness of uniforms to improve schools is limited,” wrote University of Nevada, Reno, researchers in their 2011 study titled “Uniforms in the Middle School: Student Opinions, Discipline Data, and School Police Data.”
They studied a public middle school in Nevada that had implemented a uniform dress code after floating the idea and receiving overwhelmingly positive feedback from parents and staff. The school had about 700 students, about 64 percent of who qualified for free and reduced lunch.
Students chafed against the uniform requirement.
“When asking students to provide a yes/no response to whether they like wearing a uniform to school, 12.7% of the students responded yes and 87.3% responded no,” according to the study. “The majority of the students indicated that they disagreed or strongly disagreed with almost all of the statements pertaining to perceived benefits of wearing school uniforms.”
The study also concluded that, “compared to the year prior to the uniform policy being implemented, the total discipline referrals at this middle school were reduced by 102 (9.7%). Inappropriate behavior referrals were reduced by 121 incidents (a 33% reduction). For school police data, the total police log reports decreased from 200 the year prior to implementing the uniform policy, to 75 the year of implementing the uniform policy (63% reduction). Gang-related reports decreased from 12 to 4; affray reports decreased from 20 to 8; graffiti decreased from 26 to 2; property damage to school decreased from 10 to 1; threats decreased from 18 to 4; battery decreased from 25 to 3, and administrative assists decreased from 17 to 5.”
The authors noted that their study had several limitations. Because they only looked at the first year after implementation of the uniform policy, benefits or drawbacks that might not be realized for several years or build over time could not be measured.
They concluded: “The results obtained for this study are not widely generalizable.”
Other researchers, using 10th-grade data from “The National Educational Longitudinal Study of 1988” found that student uniforms “have no direct effect on substance use, behavioral problems, or attendance. Contrary to current discourse, the authors found a negative effect of uniforms on student academic achievement.”
Yet another researcher took a look at that same set of data and concluded that they “show positive correlation between uniforms and achievement” and that the researchers who found otherwise were flawed in their analysis.
Elisabetta Gentile of the University of Houston and Scott A. Imberman of the National Bureau of Economic Research found that uniforms can improve attendance and teacher retention, depending on grade level.
The results of a study conducted by Ryan Yeung, of Syracuse University, “do not definitely support or reject either side of the uniform argument.”
McCormick’s parents will have two opportunities to share their opinions. Ultimately, however, it will be trustees’ decision.
Bagley was clear on where she stands on the issue, however.
“If we don’t do business differently,” Bagley said at December’s board meeting, “we’ll be here next year talking about the same things.”