Emily Oster

2 min Read Emily Oster

Emily Oster

Are School Uniforms a Good Idea?

Q&A on clothing

Emily Oster

2 min Read

My kids’ day care has decided to mandate school uniforms for kids over the age of 1. I find this ridiculous, especially since toddlers have so little choice about everything else in their lives, but the school admin insists there are benefits to uniforms for kids from 1 to 4. Any data on toddler uniforms?

—Anti-uniform mom

Let’s start with school uniforms in general. There is a lot of debate about whether uniforms are a good idea. On one hand, there are arguments that they can reduce stigma or over-expenditure on clothing. They can simplify the lives of busy parents. They could generate a more professional feel for the classroom that might help achievement.

On the other hand: they stifle student creativity, and some people are concerned that they might cause some kids to not want to go to school at all.  

kids standing and wearing school uniforms
Ron Lach / Pexels

This is a somewhat tough question to answer with data, since you cannot just compare kids who go to schools with uniforms (about 14% of students in public schools in the U.S.) to those who do not. There is one interesting paper from 2011 that takes a pass at this using data from Los Angeles, where different schools have different uniform policies and some change over time. Because of the changes within a school over time, you’re comparing the same kids before and after, which makes causality easier to argue for.

What the authors find is that in schools with uniforms, attendance increases in middle and high school, and teacher retention goes up in elementary school. They don’t find other effects on things like test scores, so this doesn’t live up to some of the promises that a pro-uniform group might make. Nor is the paper able to look at things like parent satisfaction.

However, this isn’t about preschool. This study, and most of the literature on uniforms, focuses on children of elementary and higher ages. I was not able to find anything in the literature that suggests either benefits or costs to uniforms for preschool kids — just… nothing. My best guess is that your school administrator is inferring, perhaps from some of the older-kid data.

My suggestion: ask! Can you politely ask what data they are relying on? It’s possible that it’s their own experience, which could be very valuable but is also not data in the traditional sense.

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Burgh NP
28 days ago

Years ago, our school administrators decided on uniforms after one family donated kids’ clothes to a charity thrift store, and another kid in the school showed up wearing those clothes! The administrators decided to avoid feelings of shame around this issue, and the parents agreed on uniforms once this was explained. The school ran an anonymous hand-me-down system for the uniforms which worked out well for many families.

LAL
LAL
28 days ago

Totally anecdotal – My daughter’s pre-school also does uniforms. I was initially bummed/annoyed because I actually enjoyed buying her clothes and thought the uniform items were more expensive. Now that we’re a year in, I honestly appreciate them. Makes getting ready in the morning so much easier. We don’t argue about what she wears or worry about what matches (which is something a number of friends with kids have complained about). She still picks between a very limited number of options (e.g. pants vs. dress vs. skort). Now we just get to have fun with what she wears on the weekend. I’ve also noticed (again, totally anecdotally) that girls seem to glob on to notions of appearance so early on (e.g. wanting to wear what the other girls are wearing, wanting to look “pretty”) and I appreciate that the uniform limits that piece.

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Share this post with a friend who could use a little more data, and a little less parenting overwhelm.

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