Dress Codes

October 26, 2015

There has been press coverage for some time of strange tales.  Tales of schools sending students home or forcing them to don off-brand apparell when they violate the school dress code.  I’d like to delve into this a bit.


First, I did attend a private high school with a strict but reasonable code (slacks and dress shoes were always required, shirt and tie from 1 October through 30 April, collared shirts were always a must.  Frankly, I liked it.  It made me feel “professional” for lack of a better word.  I am not a fan of conformity, but our dress code gave us a sense of equivalency (and still allowed for some individualism … trout ties were a thing back then).  That said, I know that just because something worked for me doesn’t make it the only path for everyone.  Today, as a teacher, I am one of a handful of teachers who wear shirt and tie almost every day, and when I am occasionally ridiculed for it, I think that my job is one that is still professional (for how long, who knows?), and that a shirt and tie is a must.

Having said that,I’m going to explain why I generally support school dress codes, even if a lot of schools are doing it all wrong.


First, let me address the reasons that are really bad:

  1.  Schools do this to enforce control on students.  This is a great thing if you want kids to learn to hate their schools and communities, and its great as a tool for teaching kids that “different is bad”.  Especially in insular communities, it is a good way to enforce local conformity.
  2. It distracts sexually observant teens.  This reason comes up a lot, and while guys with their underwear hanging out still pops up in some inner city settings, most of this is really about protecting boys from cleavage and too many curves spilling out from the wrong place, which I guess might cause a riot.  I was too young to be affected, but our entire society survived that Farrah Fawcet poster in the 1970’s, so I  side with those who say this is poor reasoning.
  3. Even if it isn’t sexual, per se, it might be distracting.  SCOTUS has been pretty darn clear that while students do have a degree of first amendment protection, once the school determines that a quasi-legit to wholly legit distraction to learning is possible, it is time to clamp down, and the courts have generally supported this.  While I would argue that some schools impose this judgment properly, there are certainly those that play this card far too often.

Let’s throw those bad reasons out.  I will make the following as an argument for some reasonable limits, that include some of the tight and skimpy and uunderwear-baring outfits.

First, whether anyone agrees or not, society has saddled schools with the “preparing students for their futures” thing. We can argue that this is a parents’ job or that government is overstepping its bounds, and those are good arguments to have, but for now, I think it is not undeniable that this has become the purview of the school.  Certainly, in the past, schools had far tighter control on dress (the public school I work at required long pants for young men and dresses for young ladies until 1980!)  I would argue that part of that mission is to prepare students how to function beyond the school (even if our data driven culture is increasingly creating schools that are more and more insular and less and less like the real world).  To tie this up in a bow:  schools do have a degree of reasonable responsibility to prepare students for what comes next, and at least part of that is for students to clearly understand that your choice in clothing carries a consequence.


More and more, business schools are requiring students to attend class in professional attire.  We are certainly not a college or a business school (President Obama may disagree with that last point), but we certainly do realize that some of our students are not necessarily going to college (another point President Obama will disagree with us on), and as such, this is their one opportunity to prepare for going out into the job-seeking world, and being able to out-perform other people.  Some of us may argue that it is not right for a future employer to judge us too much on our clothing, but we also understand that this is a reality.  I don’t think it is too much to tell guys that baring their underwear is not always acceptable, nor is baring your cleavage or shapely derriere.  If nothing else, it sets up a very reasonable expectation of our society:  there are times you get to dress exactly as you please, and there are times that dressing as you please carries consequences.

One of the issues that prompted this writing was a conversation I had with a colleague who teaches in the Chicago Public Schools.  Apparently, one of their students showed up for court dressed inappropriately, as defined by the sitting judge, and the judge really got angry with the young man and his parents for not dressing more appropriately for court.  The judge ended up firing off a letter to the school irate at how students are being allowed to dress, since that then sends the message that this is OK all of the time.  I think the judge was a little presumptuous, but that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have a point.


A second argument I’ll make deals with the reality of judgment in our society.  We are constantly judged based on how we look, how we talk, how we write, etc.  Is it fair?  Maybe not.  Is it reality? Absolutely.  Certainly, prejudice and prejudgment is wrong, but I am not talking about the person who thinks women should be demure or people who thinks someone of color is stupid.  I’m talking about the person who sees a prospective employee walk in for an interview, and not dressing appropriately, or unable to legibly fill out a form.  My father would occasionally sift through job applications at the dinner table, and we would see him crumple some up as “illegible”, and weren’t looked at.  Occasionally he would talk about the person who showed up dressed inappropriately for an interview, essentially ending the interview before it started.  Is it fair?  Perhaps not.  Is it reality?  Yes.

Students need to learn, and by learn I mean commit to habit, that there is a time and place for everything, and that sometimes, particular choices of clothing are inappropriate.  To be blunt, a woman may be exceptionally qualified for a job, but showing up in a cleavage-baring halter top communicates that she may lack the maturity or seriousness for the job, just as the guy who shows up with his waistband at mid-thigh shows that he is more interested in his personal style than what might be required of the company.

This is nothing new.  When I student taught over 20 years ago (sigh), one of my fellow student teachers was sent home one day when she showed up wearing a sweater which was loose knit enough to show her peach bra.  She was embarrassed, mostly because she never saw the problem … she had dressed like this for several years, but no one had said “not the best choice”.

This goes beyond simple clothing.  My brother has (or should) have a customer-of-the-year plaque up at several tattoo parlors in the area.  In choosing to do this, he has more-or-less disqualified himself from several avenues of employment.  It may not be a fair judgment, but companies may not want someone who chooses to look like that representing them.  It is one thing for an adult to make that choice, but something far more for someone who is 15 or 16 to make that choice that could affect their job prospects over the next ten years.


To wrap this up.  I am not gong to be an apologist for those schools who send young ladies home because their clothing was “distracting”.  That’s not the right reason to be sending kids home and away from learning.  Rather, I think they need to change their line of thinking, as do some of our kids and parents.  We all have a freedom of self-expression that is embodied constitutionally, and while that reasonably protects us from government interference, schools are a unique interaction with government for most citizens.  While we would not expect the government to put mass dress codes on all of us, there are reasonable societal norms which exist, and not adhering to them can be costly, especially to those students who may not have parents willing to sit them down and explain these realities to them (because the parents may not know them).  There may be some extremes of dress that are provocative to the point of distracting (to go to an extreme, I wonder if several of the anti-dress code advocates would have a problem with male students showing up in a thong Speedo, ala Will Ferrell).  However, I think as long as the dress code is kept reasonable, and is enforced, not in the name of defending virginity or shaming students, and of course as long as it is fair between genders, then it should be enforced, even if that means occasionally removing a student after sufficient warnings have been given, and proper explanations have been made.


Observations on the armageddon that did not occur

October 21, 2015

It is October 21, 2015, and despite the fact that a large asteroid is going to skirt the planet Earth in the next ten days, and the Cubs gave us reason to fear the end of civilization … the world continues to spin and life goes on.

I.  “Back to the Future 2” predictions …

Today is, of course the ill-named “Back to the Future” Day (it should be “Back to the Future 2” Day.  In said film, this is the day that Doc Brown, Marty McFly, and his girlfriend, Jennifer, arrive in the future to save Marty’s son from doing something stupid.  We are treated to a world of hoverboards roving up and down the streets (not happening), Jaws 19, and, oh yes, the Chicago Cubs defeating the Miami Gators in the World Series.  Cub-dom saw this as a sign (apparently, they weren’t the only conspiracy theorists who thought BttF director Robert Zemeckis had become the second coming of Nostradamus).  Apparently, they were willing to overlook that there was no team called the Miami Gators (and willing to forget the last time the Cubs played a team from Miami with the playoffs on the line). No, only the film Poltergeist has the uncanny ability to predict strange and odd things in the future (scroll down to #5, it is genuinely and odd coincidence, or proof that Steven Spielberg routinely communes with the future)

II.  Cubs management again thinks it is doing the right thing and screws up

Game 3 was to be a big day in Cubs history, and it simply was not to be, though no one correctly predicted “dropped third strike allows game winning run to score”, adding more supernatural oddity to the strangeness that is the odyssey of the Cubs.  Much like the Cubs allowed an avowed Sox fan to sing “Take Me Out to The Ball Game”, and predict an imminent Cubs win moments before the Bartman incident (fast-forward to 8:48 for the late, great Bernie Mac), I think the intersection of music and the Cubs blew up in their face yet again.  Before Game 3, the Cubs started getting things warmed up by playing “Gonna Fly Now”, which most people associate with Rocky.  Rocky Balboa was a plucky underdog, and we love underdogs.  The problem is that, especially for younger people that have never seen the movie … Rocky keeps getting hit, and getting off the floor of the ring … and then loses (his victory is in maturing and accepting the love of his wife, Adrian).  If you are going to play music, play the music of something that represents victory, not the music of someone that keeps getting beat up and then still loses.  It is, literally, the worst choice in music you could choose before a big game.  It would have been better if they had Mike Ditka and Ozzy Osbourne sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” as a duet.  In true Joe Maddon fashion, it would have loosened everyone up, and things might have been different.

III.  Eating a whole goat?!  Who does that!?

According to the Old Testament, as punishment for a loss of faith, God ordained that his chosen people would wander aimlessly for 40 years through the desert before finally finding the promised land.  I have a suspicion that whatever the Cubs did to bring this much wrath down from the heavens, it was more than kicking a cute little goat out of their stadium.  That didn’t stop a bunch of competitive eaters (led by the immortal Kobayashi) to get a sponsorship or two to sit down and eat a whole goat, because surely killing more of God’s creatures without the proper sacrificial prayers will certainly put the Cub back in favor with a deity whose number one pastime seems to be cursing the United States with popular but incompetent politicians, and trying to find the most surreal way for the Cub to lose.  This isn’t helping matters.

So, it is all over except for the Kansas City/Toronto vs. Mets World Series, and then on to the harsh inevitability of winter and another season that will end in week 17 without the Bears advancing.  Opening Day 2016 can’t get here fast enough.

Also, would the last person out of Wrigley tonight, please don’t forget to go up and get Kyle Schwarber’s home run ball before they turn out the lights.  It gets cold in the winter, as Jake Arrieta is learning about the northern United States.

Bad Social Science

October 13, 2015

Steven Levitt is highly respected in the field of economics, and became somewhat of a household name after publishing his book Freakanomics.  Since then, Levitt has entered into studying numerous areas of human endeavor.  One of his pet projects, apparently, is cheating.

Making the rounds of the news circuits today is this article which champions Levitt’s ability to ferret out cheaters in a college classroom.  I’m not sure that this is something to celebrate.

First off, please bust the cheaters.  I am all for that.  Cheating really has no place in education.  My question is not Levitt’s motives, but his methods.

The story essentially begins with a professor receiving reliable information that cheating is afoot on midterm exams.  The professor asks the guilty to step forward, which does not happen.  The professor calls in Levitt and his gang.

Levitt begins by looking for a relationship between the answers that students got wrong relative to the people they sat next to, vs. the wrong answers given by the rest of the room.  Sure enough, there is a significant difference:  people sitting next two each other tend to have far more common wrong answers than compared to other people sitting randomly away form them in the room.  Levitt then sets up the next test so that students are in randomly assigned seats with additional proctors, and lo and behold, the difference in wrong answers between neighbors and the rest of the mob disappears.  Levitt claims he can now reliably point out the cheaters, and 12 persons are recommended for academic honor violations.  Four of the 12 did confess, but parents pressure the dean to suspend the investigation.  The professor then withholds grades until the next semester for the suspected students, which results in scholarship revocations for some of them.

Here’s my issue.

If students are (let’s presume for a moment) honest, and study together, there is a chance that material is not learned correctly, and that two or more students have misconceptions.  A well written test specifically targets those misconceptions.  If students are allowed, as this professor initially did, to sit wherever they want, it is very easy to see that a significant number of people might sit with people whom they studied with (call them “friends” if you will).  Thus, you could have a degree of wrong answers in common with neighbors when no cheating took place.  Interestingly, if you then moved to random seating, the correlation between honest students getting wrong answers would also disappear.  I suppose I would have more faith in Levitt’s procedure if he knew something about the prevalence of this phenomena of honest seatmates having the same misconceptions, but it is pretty clear this is not a part of what he did.

Further, in changing seats, and adding more proctors, it is difficult to determine if the change in wrong answer correlation was simply the doubly tough non-cheating measures worked, or if this was simply a function of moving friends away from each other.

Levitt does address the “common misconception argument”, but then explains it away by comparing common right answers.  I can’t say this makes sense.   Check this from Levitt’s own paper:

wrote Levitt and Lin “Note that, because the typical student gets most of the questions correct, the mean number of shared incorrect answers across all pairs of students is only 2.34. Thus, students who set next to each other have roughly twice as many shared incorrect answers as would be expected by chance.”

If students are getting most of the questions correct, that means that there will be a large number of questions that two people would have correct in common, making it difficult to find any pattern.  Besides, if two people who studied together get the same question right, that only confirms that they may have gotten right together because they studied together

The best approach would have been to have two different versions of the test, not announce this to the class, and then see if there is a correlation between answers.  We do this in high school all of the time because we have to these days with camera phones.  We simply assume that our tests become public fodder by not less than the second class.

On the surface, this appears to be terrible, awful science (I could be wrong … and maybe some critical details are missing somewhere).  Yet, I talked to some of our social “science” teachers and they seemed to confirm that it sounded like sound practice.  Given the horror that was my experience in educational research, it seems like as long as it sounds like analysis and number crunching passes as science is beyond just education, and may be the norm in more areas of social science than I thought.  The article very much makes it sound like the 8 kids who got away with it thanks to parents pressuring the dean were horrible students.  They might be.  At least one of them might have had a parent who was an engineer, chemist, or some other person with a physical science background, and called the professor on what appears to be a flawed procedure.

I certainly hope no innocent people get railroaded with this.