The opinion survey regarding school uniforms that was sent home with my son yesterday would have been acceptable if one of the fourth graders in his class had written it. Although I don’t know its author, I suspect it was written by an adult—an adult with an obvious agenda in mind.
Anyone with a rudimentary education in research methods understands how important it is to use plain, clear, and unbiased language to frame a survey, but apparently no one with this rudimentary education was available when the Salem School District decided to craft a survey to measure parents’ opinions on the need and effectiveness of school uniforms.
The results of this survey won’t matter. Its creator tainted the outcome by relating school uniforms to universally accepted aspirations and by proposing leading and unclear questions. If you are a parent who received this survey, regardless of your position on school uniforms, you should point out to school officials that this questionnaire is biased and manipulative. My wife and I have done so by including a note on the bottom of the survey.
The bias is obvious immediately to anyone who gives the first sentence of the introduction a moment of critical thought:
“The goal of having a school-wide uniform is to create a feeling of achievement and unity within the school environment.”
Well, who in this fine city could possibly be against school achievement and unity?
Framing the goals of a school-wide uniform policy in the context of emotionally charged positive outcomes unfairly biases those who complete the questionnaire. Consider how the context might change if this alternative position introduced the survey:
“The goal of allowing Salem’s parents and students to choose appropriate clothing to wear to school is to teach children about independence and to acknowledge parents’ rights to help care and provide for their children.”
Well, who in this fine city is against teaching kids about independence or acknowledging that parents have the right to provide and care for their kids?
However, I doubt the author of this questionnaire would frame the opposing view in such a positive light. I say this because the survey has nine closed-ended questions, and five of them bias the reader for the school uniform position. I’ve included these questions below with my commentary and attempt to ask the same question in a clear and unbiased way. Read them carefully.
Question 3: Do you believe having a school uniform will positively impact the school atmosphere? (Possible answers: yes, no, or undecided)
My commentary: Notice how this question asks you only whether you think that school uniforms would have a positive effect on the school’s environment and culture. However, it is entirely possible that you could think that school uniforms would have a negative effect or no effect at all (which is not the same thing as “undecided”). Like the introduction, the bias of this question is plain to see to the critical eye.
Unbiased version: Would school uniforms likely have (1) a positive, (2) a negative, or (3) no effect on the school’s environment and culture?
Question 4: Do you believe a school uniform will have a positive impact on discipline? (Possible answers: yes, no, or undecided)
My commentary: Much like question 3, this question leads the reader towards the pro-uniform position by offering the outcome of a “positive impact” only. After all, a uniform policy could have a negative impact on discipline if students either refuse to conform or act out in other ways in order to rebel against a perceived restrictive policy.
Unbiased version: Would school uniforms have (1) a positive, (2) a negative, or (3) no effect on how students behave at school?
Question 5: Do you believe school uniforms will increase the safety environment of the school? (Possible answers: yes, no, or undecided)
My commentary: I find this question confusing and somewhat humorous. I don’t know what part of the school is the “safety environment,” but I sure hope my kids’ classrooms are there and not in the “danger environment.” Jokes aside, I’m guessing the writer is attempting to get at whether kids are less likely to get into fights or bullying situations if they all wear the same uniform. This would be a fair enough question if it were asked in a straightforward manner. I’ll give it a try.
Unbiased version: Would a school uniform policy make students less likely to get into fights or bully each other?
Question 6: Do you believe school uniforms will reduce the competition in the wearing of name-brand clothing? (Possible answers: yes, no, or undecided)
My commentary: There are two problems with question 6: (1) it is biased because it states as a matter of fact that there is a name-brand clothing competition that, I assume by the tone, is somehow a bad thing, and (2) it is unclear about the effect of this competition, but I take it that the writer is implying that by removing name-brand clothing, schools would also remove one source of petty jealousy. This question is too unclear and confusing to try to revise, and I suspect it is redundant to question 5 anyway.
Unbiased version: None. I’d scrap it.
Question 8: Do you believe school uniforms will be an enforceable policy? (Possible answers: yes, no, or undecided)
My commentary: The writer slipped up with the verb “will be.” This, of course, implies that school uniforms are a certainty, and this certainly seems to be the writer’s goal. The correct verb should have been “would be” or perhaps “should be.” Also note well the ambiguity about whom or what will be enforcing this policy. Is this a practical question about whether teachers could or should be responsible for enforcing a school-wide uniform policy, or is this a legal question about whether a school has the legal authority to enforce such a policy on students? The practical question is a matter of opinion that could be answered by parents, but the legal question can only be adequately satisfied by referring to the law of the land. Here in the Commonwealth, the law states: “School officials shall not abridge the rights of students as to personal dress and appearance except if such officials determine that such personal dress and appearance violate reasonable standards of health, safety and cleanliness.”
Unbiased versions: Do teachers have the ability to enforce a school uniform policy in the classroom?
In the spirit of honesty, I am not in favor of a school uniform policy. I think it’s a solution in desperate need of a problem. Like many of the other so-called school turnaround proposals, the school district has not shown that there is a genuine need for adopting a policy on school uniforms. Moreover, the turnaround presentations I’ve attended did not discuss how a school uniform policy would address any of the underlying problems that have led to the district’s level four status. Lastly, since Massachusetts law doesn’t allow for a mandatory school uniform policy, we’d end up with a voluntary uniform policy that is no better or more enforceable than the current dress code.
Regardless of my views on the need or effectiveness of school uniforms in Salem, I resent that this school survey claims to seek the opinions of parents, but then serves up manipulative messages and biased questions.
Perhaps the school district should develop a turnaround proposal with the goal of improving how it communicates with parents.