Should Schools Eliminate Dress Codes?

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More than 90 percent of school districts in the U.S. have some kind of dress code policy, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office. These policies are intended to provide guidance on what kinds of clothes and hairstyles students can and can’t wear to school. In recent years, many students, parents, and researchers have raised questions about the fairness of school dress codes, prompting some districts to reconsider them. An educational researcher and a school administrator face off about whether schools should do away with dress codes.

School dress codes are designed to help build community cohesion and to eliminate classroom distractions so students can focus on their schoolwork. But despite these good intentions, in practice, dress codes often are more about enforcing conformity on students, and they often fall unfairly on girls and students of color.

Many school dress codes uphold outdated gender norms and may even require girls to purchase more clothing than their male counterparts. Underlying many dress codes is a presumption that girls must conform to a set of rules to avoid distracting their male classmates, burdening them mentally, emotionally, and financially. Instead, we should encourage boys to respect their female classmates regardless of what they’re wearing, modeling what we want in society.

Dress codes often fall unfairly on girls and students of color.

Black students also feel the weight of dress codes more heavily than their White peers. Some dress code policies treat Black hairstyles such as dreadlocks as inappropriate, while allowing and encouraging hairstyles that White people favor. These policies send a message to Black students that their hair’s natural state is wrong and must be straightened or “corrected.” This double standard violates the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, and national origin.

Some say that dress codes are more convenient for parents and will save them money, but this convenience comes at a high cost to students’ education. Many punishments for dress code violations—especially any consequences that remove students from the classroom—are disproportionately harsh and can stifle authentic teaching and learning.

Our schools are responsible for teaching students and preparing them for life. What lesson are knee-length skirts or straightened hair teaching? Clothes won’t transform a child into a respectable adult; great lessons from trusting teachers do.

Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution

Good schools allow students and staff to learn from each other, form relationships, and express themselves while maintaining a safe, effective setting and teaching important life skills. Dress codes are an important tool to build such an environment.

Knowing what to wear and when is important, and as educators, it’s part of our job to teach this. School dress codes serve as guideposts in helping students recognize that their clothing choices say a lot about who they are and how they want to represent themselves in different contexts, such as college or the workplace. Employers take note of first impressions. From algebra class to graduation, dress codes let students practice how to dress for success.

Clear routines and expectations, including what to wear, foster environments where students can grow academically and socially. If you’ve ever been in a classroom lacking these, you know that without structure, learning crumbles. Dress codes maintain a calm and predictable setting that facilitates teaching and learning. Furthermore, helping students learn how to participate within established community norms is a life skill.

Dress codes let students practice how to dress for success.

Unfortunately, improperly designed and unfairly enforced dress codes can lead to discrimination or over-punishment. Yet the absence of guidelines can be just as damaging. When people are allowed to wear clothing to school that promotes violence, drug use, or intolerance, they jeopardize the safe environment to which all students are entitled.

When designing dress codes, it’s important to include perspectives from across the school community, especially those of the students who must abide by them. It’s hard work but necessary to create thoughtful, culturally responsive policies to support students’ growth. And while individual students and guardians may chafe at how a particular policy restricts their freedom to wear exactly what they want, those same dress codes help guarantee them a safe and inclusive learning environment.

Principal, Talent Middle School, Talent, Oregon

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