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Blog: Rising Educators Provide Feedback on Dress Codes

October 18, 2018

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At the PDKPoll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools event in September, Poll Director Joan Richardson spoke about school dress codes in 1969 - the first year of polling and her junior year in high school. “The major issue at my high school [in a small town in Michigan],” she said, “was the dress code. The dress code in 1969 required that boys wear pants, not jeans, with belts and collared shirts, not t-shirts. Girls were required to wear skirts or dresses, never pants, and certainly not jeans. And those skirts needed to touch the floor if you knelt down.”

50 years later, fashions have changed and so have public attitudes on what is appropriate to wear, but dress codes remain top of mind for current students. Recent research shows dress codes are enforced is disproportionately by race and gender and this new research has brought dress codes to the forefront of conversation amongst teachers and administrators as well.

We reached out to our Rising Educators to see if their experiences with dress codes in 2018 were positive, negative, or mixed, and received a wide range of responses. We asked: “Does your school have a dress code? If so, do you feel that it helps or hurts your ability to learn in the classroom and why? If not, do you feel it would help or hurt your ability to learn in school if one were instituted?”. Due to the nature of the question, many students chose to remain anonymous (we have attributed the gender and state to those who wished to remain anonymous).

Are Dress Codes Clear?

A common theme among many of the respondents was that the dress codes in their schools were vague, which caused confusion. “The only code [my school has] is that clothing cannot be distracting,” said one female student in Massachusetts. “I think the main issue with this is it leaves so much open and leaves students to have no idea what is ‘distracting.’”

Daisy Boyar from New Mexico reported that her dress code was much better defined and that it indeed helped learning. “No short shorts, no spaghetti straps, no see-through clothing, no tummy,” she said about the specific dress code requirements at her school for females. “I think for the most part it definitely helps learning in that it teaches to show respect and not be expressing the inappropriate.”

Is Dress Code Enforcement Equitable?

When the topic of enforcement was mentioned, many felt that female students are treated differently than their male counterparts, including our male Rising Educators who answered the question.

“I believe [dress codes] help student’s ability to learn to an extent, but I feel it marginalizes women and the way they dress,” said Matthew Young from Alaska.

“Often news is made because we treat female genders much more severely than males. Hold equal standards and equal consequences,” said the female student from Massachusetts quoted earlier. “If you are telling a female she cannot wear a tank top or things with excessive slits, then a male should not be able to wear a shirt with cut off sleeves and armholes down to his waist. Also, let’s really look at policies which force kids to have to be removed from school. That defeats the point of education.”

Jonathan Lowery from Wisconsin worried about enforcement as well, “My high school[‘s] dress code is not heavily enforced. To have it more enforced would cause trouble and hinder learning because students would publicly oppose it and become a distraction.”

“Moderation is key,” he continued, “but if you cannot moderate it than toss it. It would be better to not have [a dress code] than to over-enforce it.”

Do Dress Codes Help School Safety?

One reason for dress codes cited by the U.S. Department of Education is safety. Only one of our respondents mentioned safety but he did see the dress code as a positive in this regard. “[It is] easier for security to identify who and who doesn’t belong in our schools,” said Santino Palizo of Texas.

Do Dress Codes Help or Hinder Learning?

In the end, our Rising Educators were split on if dress codes help or hinder learning. “I feel it helps in the classroom,” said a male student in Wisconsin, “so everyone feels comfortable.”

“I feel that it helps people stay focused because no one is distracted by things that should not be seen,” said a female student in Kentucky.

Another female student in Kentucky disagreed. “I do not believe that a dress code is necessary,” she said, “I do not believe that this affects my ability to learn. Kids will choose whether or not to learn even if there is or isn’t a dress code. There no correlation between dress code and ability to learn.”