"Will dress codes work?

Our public schools, as anyone who watches The O’Reilly Factor knows, are out of control. That at least was the message I got the other night, as O’Reilly took it upon himself to castigate the superintendent of the Warren Township schools over her handling of a situation in which two sixth-graders were caught having sex during their shop class last December.

So, the next morning, it came as no surprise to learn that Dr. Eugene White, superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools, has proposed a student dress code by way of trying to get a better handle on expectations and behavior in the hallways and classrooms of IPS.

White wants to outlaw the sorts of fashion statements associated with droopy pants, bare midriffs, do-rags and detachable gold teeth. Instead, he would like to see students showing up for class in solid color shirts and blouses; black, navy or khaki pants; and shoes that are, well, solid navy, black or white. “We’re trying to convey to young people that going to school is not going to the beach or the playground; it’s a place you go to work,” White said.

White has a point. His district’s high dropout rate is symptomatic of a deeper cultural disconnect existing between the mainly inner-city kids who attend IPS and IPS itself. It is painfully clear that too many IPS kids get too little support from families and friends of the kind that can help them succeed in school. But when these kids come up short on achievement tests or drop out, it’s the school that gets blamed. That’s why educators today are trying to find as many ways as possible — from all-day kindergarten to school dress codes — to get between poor and minority kids and the worlds they come from. This is an understandable, if desperate, impulse. The trouble is there is no guarantee these efforts will ultimately succeed.

In Indianapolis, a coalition of educators and activists argue that imposing a dress code on IPS students is akin to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. In a paper called “School Uniforms: A 20th century response to 21st century challenges,” this group says that IPS has what it calls “a legitimation crisis.” The paper charges that student dress is not the issue, IPS is the issue: “Even in the small schools, which are planned to create a non-traditional educational environment, the learning climate in most IPS classrooms is still the same as it was 100 years ago.”

The paper quotes a 1990 study that found a majority of students were dissatisfied with teachers and classroom interactions, described school as boring or unpleasant, and themselves as passive or disengaged. What’s more, the paper asserts that, for many black students, “IPS is a source of self-doubt rather than self-development” because “IPS confuses assimilation with education.” Public schools are seen as places that compete with and invert black culture, an “imposition on Black people by White people.”

The authors question whether IPS can ever succeed as long as it relies on “a top down authoritarian school climate in middle and high schools that refuses to recognize the responsibility of our public schools to prepare students for citizenship by providing them the opportunity to learn and practice democracy in the school and community.” They call for IPS to define itself as an anti-poverty broker: “Confronting and improving child rearing practices; challenging social, class, color, gender, age and handicap discrimination; working to improve health, welfare and housing problems, and shining the light of politics on urban wealth and income — these are the real problems IPS faces, not the clothing fads of teenagers.”

This, admittedly, is a big, utopian gulp. But one has to challenge the romantic assumption here that children are naturally self-governing beacons who get the light ground out of them by the dark satanic mill of public education. Furthermore, if our depressed inner-city neighborhoods were the sources of more stories of sustainable grass-roots organizing and alternative governance that could be carried into IPS classrooms, that might make the kind of counter-cultural paradigm shift being suggested seem a little more attainable.

But it can also be productive to start with a utopian ideal and work your way back to something practical, rather than continuing to try and fix a broken system suffering from the double whammy of unrealistic expectations and scant public confidence. If we were to invent a public education system today, would it still look like the system we have? Certainly not. On this the advocates for democratic education and the rest of us must surely agree.

For more information on democratic education and the “School Uniforms” paper, contact Shawn Hendricks at shawnhendricks@yahoo.com



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