Thursday, February 18, 2016

Why Outdated Policies Distract Us, Leave Long-Term Damage

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Recently, one of my local school districts decided to “stand tough” on a series of challenges to their longstanding dress code. This district happens to be the one where my own children attend and where I once worked.
For this discussion, I don’t plan on listing all of the details of the dress code. But by most standards, the dress code is lengthy and very strict (samples include that male students cannot wear earrings, have hair beyond collar length, etc.). See more info here: A Boy And His Hair Are Behind The Latest Clovis Unified Dress Code Debate
They are currently facing a series of legal challenges based on gender equity, as well as an unprecedented degree of public student protest (Boys wear dresses to protest Clovis Unified dress code).
First and foremost, I am not opposed to a dress code. Common sense dress codes focused on decency are appropriate and understood by students. But when we go beyond things related to decency, we seem to cross the line.
Indeed, I'm ok with school uniforms as a way to simplify and move forward. Additionally, I'm all about challenging students to dress professionally. I lead schools and programs where we would incentivize students to dress up. Let's reward and recognize for professional dress vs. punish for not following a long list of disconnected rules. Finally, dressing professionally makes more sense when we're challenging students to perform real world work with community partners and more.
Dress Codes are like all good sets of rules and policies. Keep them simple, common sense and easily understood and they will more likely be followed and respected. It's when we make these lists too long and overreaching that we get into trouble.
What is important to me is not whether they should revamp their dress code (I of course think that they should and eventually will for a variety of reasons), but rather what the battle represents educationally and how they are truly missing the boat.

Prioritizing Learning

This district has a proud tradition of success and has been noteworthy nationwide for outstanding test scores, facilities, athletics and arts programs. Meanwhile, they are, in my assessment and the assessment of many others, behind when it comes to 21st century educational indicators such as tech integration, projects-based approaches and more. 
In the end to me, every minute spent during the school day or during board meetings focused on enforcing strict dress codes is another minute lost on what really matters: learning.
The district and the dress code supporters argue that there is direct correlation between student dress and academic performance. However, they are not able to demonstrate this through data or research. It seems to be mainly stemming from tradition, emotion, feeling various community attitudes or culture.
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We are living in an era where education needs to be changing, adapting, evolving and reimagining more than ever. Because of a rapidly changing world influenced by technology, an emerging global economy and entire systems redesigns, all school approaches and structures are being questioned.
None may seem more out of touch than a major focus on dress code, especially an archaic one.
But beyond that, our time needs to be completely totally focused on things directly related to learning. Teachers need more training and collaboration time. Students need more access to 21st century resources, technologies and opportunities. 
All adults need to be committed to learning and the true culture of learning 100% of the time. Our students need and deserve that. Anything else is a distraction and ultimately robs students of what will directly correlate to their future success.

Relevance and Rationale

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(College Life)       (Today’s Office Life)

One of the primary mantras that the dress code supporters continue to promote is that the dress code supports what students need to be successful in college and the workplace.
However, you will not find any similar dress code at any public higher education institution in the country. Indeed, college students can and do wear almost anything and demonstrate that it has no correlation to their success.
Go to any public college or university and see what the future engineers, doctors, lawyers, business leaders, nurses, architects, etc. are wearing. It may not be what they’re going to wear specifically on their future jobs, but what they are wearing in college is not keeping them from their education or current successes.
Additionally, check with those that study and watch what is happening with dress in the professional world. Casual Fridays have become more than just one day a week. Professional dress across all industries and environments is getting more and more casual. It’s a cultural reality whether you like it or not. Ties, suits and more are quickly disappearing.

Capturing Students:  Authority vs. Attention

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But beyond the lack of correlation and focus on what matters, leaders of this district are also missing out on the larger pedagogical shifts. For too long, we have perpetuated a school system focused on compliance vs. engagement. We have employed a top down approach stemming from a child-raising philosophy that young people were better seen and not heard. And they also had to be seen in a certain light.
However, whether you like it or not, this does not serve our needs any longer (and maybe it never did). We are supposed to be training and preparing our young people for a world where they are expected to be self-starters, creative, innovative, collaborative, entrepreneurial and a whole lot more.
Nothing about the compliant, authoritarian approach connects to that preparation. Instead of getting our kids to conform to a long list of rules, policies and dress codes, we should be focused on engaging them and capturing their attention.
We need to capture their attention with regards to their imaginations and subsequent application of creative endeavors. We need to be tapping into their individual innovative genes in order to set them up to solve the myriad of real world problems they do and will face. To me, this has be to be what we do and how we interact with them. Our relationships with our students has to be based on and centered around what they do, produce and create instead of what they wear or follow.

Embracing Leadership and Talent

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(courtesy of Minarets High School)

What is also troubling is that once we base the relationship with students on rules and procedures vs. production and innovation, we prevent ourselves from truly seeing their untapped talents and leadership. Instead of creating situations where male students feel the need to protest the dress code by dressing up in dresses, we should be creating real world challenges and opportunities for these same students to embrace. Schools in these systems are abundant with student leaders who are not being challenged to apply their leadership skills for solving real problems. Instead, we’re manufacturing unnecessary problems for them to protest.
We either see students as creative, innovative, talent-filled individuals or as those same old children we’ve known for years who need to learn to follow the rules, shut up and get in line (even if our lines are arbitrary and disconnected from the real world).

Lasting Impressions
(what we walk away with…)

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And since we’re talking about adult-student relationships being such an integral driver in creating 21st century successful citizens, what is the lasting result of us clinging to outdated, irrelevant and over-reaching rules? I can tell you that it’s not good.
Think about the high school senior featured in the first article linked at the top of this post. He’s a straight “A” student who has a promising career academically, personally and professionally.
But what he will remember of his high school, his school district and his overall school experience
Will they be positive memories? Chances are there will be permanent scars.
Will he want to return to his alma mater as a distinguished alum and guest speaker?
I doubt it.
Will he want to donate money back to his school after his successful run as a businessperson or entrepreneur?
I doubt it.
Will he want his own children to attend the same school or district he did?
I doubt it.
We have sacrificed our current and permanent relationship with this student and his peers for apparent short-term gains in compliance. We have upheld tradition and lost the future.

The Larger Implication

So, why this debate can sometimes be seen just as a dress code issue, it’s really a whole lot more. We need to think about all of the implications of the rules and systems that we create and enforce. What is our mission?  We need to know and truly base the rules on that. Good luck to those schools, districts and systems who have yet to have this larger discussion. Sadly, each day, great students are missing out on what could be a greater education.

(photos courtesy of Foter, Minarets High School)


  1. I disagree. I think school dress codes, if reasonable, serve to cut down on the disruption caused by students wearing gang-related clothing and symbols of hate groups. I think schools where students wear uniforms have the least distraction to the learning process. It cuts down on the daily decisions about what to wear, and makes no distinction between rich and poor. The focus can be on learning -- not fashion and social grouping. I was a public school student in the fifties and a teacher in the sixties. I saw the transition in student fashion as it related to student behavior and attitudes.

    1. I since updated. I'm not opposed to basic dress codes. I'm opposed to overreaching ones. I'm opposed to an obsessive pursuit of them. Read the edit. I hope it clarifies.

  2. LOVE this and couldn't agree more! Get reasonable. Their policies do not foster mutual respect and are out of touch with current work culture. Additionally, way too much valuable time and relationships are wasted on enforcing and defending this policy.

  3. It's like you got in my head and wrote what I think. Love it.

    1. Thank you. I know most of CUSD may not agree or support. But I think the greater world might.