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Student Chic

AS a plank in his platform, James Brett, who is running for mayor of Boston, is proposing a dress code for students in the city's public schools.

With guns in the classroom, drugs on the playground, and scholastic excellence often only a gleam in a teacher's eye, a skeptic can ask: Will a tie and white shirt or a plaid skirt and cardigan sweater have a seriously civilizing effect on students?

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It may be a measure of the desperation of the education ``crisis'' that so much hope gets placed on a change of clothes. Yet this is what has happened. The school dress code has become a fashionable - no pun intended - idea receiving national consideration far beyond Boston.

Proponents argue their case with scholarly fervor. They point out that logos on jackets - or even sweat shirts - can signify honor roll status. They assure concerned students that their individuality is not threatened so long as baggy pants and high-tops can be worn to give a personal accent. Parents are reminded that uniforms will be cheaper than leather jackets and designer jeans. As many private and parochial schools have known for years, uniforms can have a helpful leveling effect among student populations that may reflect considerable economic diversity. And where uniforms are the rule, there is less concern about necklines, hemlines, and inappropriate slogans on shirts and jackets.

Still, a skeptic - again - can observe that uniforms are morally neutral. The value of the leveling effect notwithstanding, uniforms will not alone make their wearers well-behaved and intellectually curious.

The school uniform solution, if thought of as a solution, is a temptation all too typical of the times - one more example of improving an image and hoping against hope that improved performance will follow.

Making school pure ``fun'' (as entertaining as TV, if not a form of TV) and giving courses in ``self-esteem'' - such fashionable ideas are not without redeeming value, reflecting a compassion for the plight of less-fortunate students. But their substantive contribution to knowledge and skills remains to be proven. This latest notion seems even more superficial - literally cosmetic.

A school dress code? Why not? But teaching by the book should take priority over dressing by the book. Only tailors believe that clothes make the man.

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