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School uniforms and the crises in public education

Joey Grihalva

In 2014, Darienne Driver became the Acting Superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools. By most measures Driver inherited a struggling district. She has since boosted attendance in most regions, improved literacy across grade levels, and overseen a record amount of scholarship money earned by graduating seniors.

MPS’ first female superintendent has garnered support from the school board, which extended her contract last summer, giving her the green light to introduce a slate of major reforms.

These plans were unveiled in November. They include a unified schedule, changes to the lowest performing schools, an Office of Black and Latino Male Achievement, making MPS the sole authorizer of charter schools, and mandating school uniforms.

Last week the school board approved the uniform measure with an 8-1 vote. About a third of MPS schools already require uniforms. The new policy will go into effect next school year.

It will not be a strict mandate, with opt out policies for both schools and individual students. A school will need 66% of staff, students and families in agreement to opt out, while individuals will require a letter to their principal from a parent or guardian.

In addition to being a writer, I also work in MPS as a substitute teacher and have worked as a paraprofessional (teacher’s assistant). I’ve been all over the district, observing and interacting with hundreds of students, teachers and administrators.

Time for action

I salute the superintendent for not mincing words on issues of race and for proposing bold actions to address the district’s shortcomings. I have no doubt that her heart is in the right place. I sense that she is keenly aware of the impact that poverty has on student performance, considering half of MPS students live near the poverty line.

Beyond the package of reforms proposed in November, Driver’s team has already implemented some encouraging programs. These include universal driver’s education, a Family and Community Engagement Network, community wellness days, a free late night basketball league, a mass messaging system for teachers to connect with parents, and a stronger relationship with the Milwaukee Bucks.

Putting all schools on the same schedule August to May is a good idea. It makes no sense for high school students to take their first semester exams a few weeks after winter break. Students tend to be more patient at the beginning of the school year, so teaching in August should be less of a struggle than in June. Also, this measure will save the district hundreds of thousands of dollars.

All that being said, I find the latest measure school uniforms to be an ineffective strategy for turning the district around. Studies may indicate uniforms offer subtle positives curbing bullying, promoting school spirit, a culture of professionalism, and saving families money in the long run, but I have not seen this in practice.

A benefit or a barrier?

I’ve worked in MPS buildings that require uniforms and I’ve seen no discernible improvements over their non-uniformed counterparts. Students still find ways to ridicule each other. Parents of children that want new, name brand clothing may end up saving money. However, uniforms will inevitably add a financial burden to those who rely on second hand clothing.

The district claims it will give each student $20 to cover their first outfit, but there’s no indication of where that money will come from. This is being promised at a time when many schools are facing budget deficits and are already issuing excess letters to staff that will be let go at the end of the school year.

Whenever I work with youth I try to remember the following words of Dr. Maya Angelou: “At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.”

I make it a point to compliment among other things a student’s fashion sense. This will be lost in the uniform era. We are sacrificing freedom of expression and individuality for the appearance of order, discipline, and unity.

Contrary to what was advocated in front of the school board, I’ve seen uniforms be a barrier to learning. I’ve seen students kicked out of class, sent home, and not allowed to take a final exam because they weren’t wearing a uniform. The superintendent assures us this will not happen “under any circumstances,” but it is already happening, so how can we trust her word?

District leaders say there will be washers and dryers and extra uniforms on hand for those who don’t come prepared, but that will add to the budget. It may also discourage families from feeling the need to buy their own child a uniform.

Then there is the question of the opt out policy, particularly for individuals. If a handful of students are exempt, what’s to stop others from making false claims that they are also exempt? This flexibility leaves room for abuse and creates another point of conflict between students and teachers/administrators, which will end up wasting learning time.

Pick your battles

“I pick my battles every single day and every single kid is different,” says Bradley Hartney, Milwaukee High School of the Arts teacher and alumni.

“To get through the day and make sure the kids are learning, I have to decide what I’m willing to fight with them about and it’s not going to be what they’re wearing.”

If teachers aren’t willing to police the new uniform policy — as many have indicated to me — this could also create a point of conflict between teachers and administrators.

The minor problems posed by allowing students to wear what they want in school absolutely pales in comparison to the out-of-control cell phone use in high schools and increasingly in middle schools.

Granted, students have always had ways to ignore their teacher and class work: daydreaming, talking to a neighbor, reading a book, listening to a Walkman, playing Tetris on a graphing calculator, etc. But cell phones are all of those things on steroids, making them exceedingly irresistible and addicting.

Despite some tough talk, many teachers and administrators don’t have the will to take students phones away during class time. Some even fear physical retaliation if they do, which should tell you how serious the problem has become.

In the upper grades, cell phones are the number one point of conflict in the classroom. A strict, enforceable, district-wide cell phone policy would have a far greater impact than school uniforms.

(It is worth noting that cell phones are not completely problematic. Some teachers allow their students to listen to music while doing individual work, which can help increase focus.)

All of this points to the reality that school uniforms and prohibiting cell phones are merely band aids for more insidious problems.

If we are going to turnaround our schools in any sort of lasting way, we must address the deep, underlying crises in education and in society that are plaguing our schools.

A lack of respect

If I had a dollar for every time a teacher or administrator encouraged me to take up education as my full-time career, I could put a sizeable down payment on a teacher certification program.

The crisis in recruitment and retention is dire. Veteran teachers can’t wait to retire, while fewer young people are entering the profession. Arts and music funding is slowly returning to MPS, but we are struggling to find teachers to fill these positions.  

The fundamental cause of this crisis is that an educator’s work is criminally undervalued in American society. As educators, we are secondary only to a child’s parent or guardian as the central influence in that child’s life.

The impact educators have on shaping the future cannot be understated. Our responsibility is immense, yet we are paid paltry wages and consistently expected to go above and beyond our job requirements. And in Wisconsin, Governor Walker’s Act 10 has weakened our collective voice.

You don’t become an educator in America today because it’s a stable, well-paying job. You don’t become an educator because you will be supported and nurtured by your superiors. You don’t become an educator because the fruits of your labor are easily identifiable.

You became an educator in America today because you care about the future. You become an educator because you are willing to sacrifice — your time, energy, and occasionally your sanity — and work tirelessly for the greater good. You become an educator because you believe that together we can make a difference.

But teachers are tired. They are tired of fighting with kids about their cell phones. They are tired of dealing with aloof, uninvolved parents. They are tired of policy makers telling them what is best for their classroom. They are tired of administrators not having their backs.

Teachers are tired of professional development and useless procedural meetings. They are tired of clicking hundreds of little boxes in order to fill out their report cards. They are tired of having to teach to standardized tests. And they are especially tired of those tests changing every few years.

One size does not fit all

The focus on standardized tests and how they are used to measure educator effectiveness is another crisis in education. Cincinnati public school teacher Kristina L. Taylor recently wrote an eloquent and incisive open letter to the Department of Education. In it she critiques our emphasis on standardized tests, which increasingly consume teaching time in America.

“Standardized test data is one measure of academic achievement, and as such it is valuable, but it is nothing more than a single data point,” writes Taylor.

“I want that data point — I want it for each of my students individually, and I want it for my class collectively — because it tells me something. But it doesn’t tell me everything, and we are treating it as if it does.”

“How can the snapshot of a test score — given on a certain day, in a certain amount of time, with a specific type of questioning — tell me more than what I know as a result of working with my students hour after hour, day after day, for 40 weeks?”

Personally, I have administered standardized tests and witnessed intelligent students perform poorly for whatever reason. Sometimes they’re not feeling well, sometimes they buckle under the pressure, sometimes they have trouble with their computer or testing materials, and sometimes they’re just having a bad day.

“Education is complicated,” writes Taylor. “Student growth is broad and deep, and sometimes happens in fits and starts and other times grows slowly and consistently. This complex process could never be adequately measured by a series of tests.”

“As a nation, we must move away from our obsession with testing outcomes,” argues Taylor. “The only group that is profiting from this is the testing industry. And with 1.7 million dollars being spent by states annually on testing, they are, quite literally, profiting, and at the taxpayers’ expense.”

The push to privatize education is another crisis. It is compounded by President Trump’s admitted goal of the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” The way that standardized tests are being used can be understood as an intentional maneuver to bring about the collapse of the entire public education system.

The crisis of poverty

The principal argument in Taylor’s letter is that no single factor impacts student performance in public schools more than poverty. When we talk about the “crisis in education,” we are most often referring to our poor global standing in regards to standardized test results. However, when we eliminate poverty as a factor, America’s standing drastically improves.

According to data from the Program for International Assessment (PISA) that has been disaggregated based on economic status, American schools with less than 10% of students living in poverty score higher than any other country in the world. Schools with less than 24.9% living in poverty rank 3rd, while those with poverty rates between 25% and 49.9% rank 10th in the world. The plummet appears when schools have more than 50% of students living in poverty.

Considering America’s child poverty rate is 34th out of 35 “economically advanced” countries, this information is essential to understanding the “crisis in education.” Poverty impacts students in a profound way.

As Taylor writes, “Children living in poverty are more likely to be coping with what has been labeled “toxic stress” — caused by a high number of identified adverse childhood events. Factors such as death or incarceration of a parent, addiction, mental illness, and abuse, among other things.”

I’ve seen how “toxic stress” directly affects my students. It often creates a “highly sensitive stress response system” that leads to destructive behavior patterns and limits their ability to learn. Yet we are told to treat and teach each child the same.

“We know that children living in poverty face greater academic challenges than their middle and upper class counterparts, and yet, instead of helping this situation, the school accountability movement has chosen to vilify the wrong thing (teachers and schools), and has used standardized test scores as the weapon of choice to add insult to injury,” writes Taylor.

Two types of students

In my time working with the upper grades I’ve come to identify two basic student archetypes. There are those who see value in the time they spend in school. These students recognize that if they take advantage of their education they can elevate their lives. They make teaching an absolute joy. These are the “good” students.

Then there are those who see no value in the time they spend in school. They believe they are only there because it’s the law. These students put forth zero effort and are constantly trying the patience of their teachers. These are the “bad” students.

The tragic reality is that children living in poverty have more incentive to become “good” students, yet they are more likely to see no value in their education and end up becoming “bad” students.

By no means am I saying that an individual student should be judged as either “good” or “bad.” These archetypes simply represent two ends of the spectrum. But it is important to understand this concept because the essential challenge for educators is how to move our children closer to the archetype of the “good” student.

The big picture

How we address these challenges will ultimately determine the success and survival of public education in America.

For starters, our schools should resemble the 21st century workplace. Despite having modern technology in many classrooms, our educational structures too often resemble the industrial workplaces of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Our lessons must relate to students and their lives. We have to engage them on a level they can understand and get excited about. We need to move away from memorization and move towards creative, collaborative problem solving.

We need more (and better) staff. This may not be feasible in the context of deficits and budget cuts, but students desperately need more highly qualified adults to talk to, encourage, support, and assist them. It is painfully obvious that a decrease in class size and an increase in one-on-one and small group learning improves student performance.

As long as Americans value the accumulation of wealth above all else, poverty will continue to plague us. After all, you can’t be rich without someone else being poor.

These fundamental challenges will require more than just those working in education to solve. Politicians, parents and community leaders must be involved. I do not believe that the superintendent and her staff are solely responsible for solving the underlying problems that afflict American society.

However, I do believe that Driver and her team are aware of these underlying issues. Despite my criticism of the uniform policy, I think they are on the right track. It is my hope that future reform measures keep in mind the most pressing obstacles facing education.

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