The American school system, grades K-12, leaves much to be desired.

While its flaws are legion, this post isn’t about that. It’s easy to complain.

This post is about how we could do better.

To be clear, I’m talking about redesigning public education, so “just use the X model” where X is “charter” or “Montessori” or “home school” or “private school” isn’t sufficient. This merits actual thought and discussion.

Breaking It Down

One of the biggest problems facing public schools is that they’re asked to do several very different kinds of tasks.

On the one hand, the primary purpose of school is to educate children.

On whatever hand happens to be the case in real life, school is often more a source of social services for children and parents alike, providing food and safety to children and free daycare to parents. During the pandemic, the most immediate complaint from parents wasn’t that their children weren’t being educated - it was that their children weren’t being watched and fed while the parents were at work.

Part 1 of this series will focus on this. What is the best way to implement the school-as-social-services model?

School As Social Services

To make this easy, we’ll start out by imagining that we’re creating two distinct types of “schools”: educational schools and social services schools. (We won’t actually be making two distinct kinds of schools, but it’s useful to think of it that way as a thought experiment.) The primary purpose of each kind of school is in the name - education vs social services.

With that set, let’s think through our requirements and constraints.

Requirements

When designing anything, the first thing to do is figure out the requirements. School-as-social-services has several, and likely some that I’ve missed:

Feed children healthy meals

Ensure safety of children from the elements, violence, etc. during school hours

Provide children access to state resources (library, counseling, police, medical)

Accommodate/support children with special needs (from dyslexia and ADHD to severe physical/mental disabilities)

Provide parents with free daycare

Other things I haven’t thought of

Constraints

After the requirements, we have the constraints: what resources do we have, and what are their limits? What can’t we do?

Assume school budget stays the same (no miraculous budget increase)

Assume the number of children needing resources stays the same (no magical cure for poverty/genetic disorders/other reasons children need support)

Can’t be too politically radical (we’re trying to build a real solution)

Other things I haven’t thought of

The Sieve Model

This idea isn’t really mine - it emerged during a discussion I had with a friend who’d done therapy work at an inner-city school. Nevertheless, it seems to me to present a good solution for our social services school.

The name - sieve - comes from the tool used to sort particles of differing size.

The basic premise of the model comes from the idea that a child could enter the school in any kind of distress - hungry, cold, traumatized, abused, or any combination thereof. Each of these requires a different kind of response, so we have to sift for each and then get each child the resources they need.

The idea is that, when each child enters the school, they run through these sieves, and are directed according to their needs. Each sieve could be a questionnaire, an adult asking these questions, or some kind of self-help kiosk; the important idea is that children are presented with these questions, and over time come to trust the system enough that they answer honestly.

Physical Triage Sieve - Is the child in immediate physical distress or need (injured, hungry, hypothermic, etc.)? If so, prioritize remedying that need: get them food, blankets, a safe place to sleep, etc.

Emotional Triage Sieve - Is the child in immediate emotional distress (abused, severely neglected, traumatized)? If so, divert them to a counselor, therapist, or some other resource for addressing this.

Long-Term Sieve - Does the child show long-term trends of physical or emotional distress? If so, direct the child to a caseworker of some sort who can help them address this.

Special Needs Sieve - Does the child have special needs, or do they need specific supervision or help?

The Kids Who Are Okay

The children who filter through all of our sieves are presumed to be doing alright, which means that they don’t need specialized support.

In our school-as-social-services model, these children might simply have their pick of a number of facilities, each with adult supervision. There could be a library, a gym, several sports setups (basketball/soccer/volleyball whatever), areas for children to congregate, outdoor spaces and/or gardens when the weather permits, a computer lab, a cafeteria, and so on.

Remember, in this model we’re not concerned with educating children, only babysitting them. Each room gets an adult supervisor, but their purpose is to make sure the children are safe, not teach them.

The Kids Who Are Not Okay

For the children answering ‘yes’ to our above questions, more intensive resources are deployed.

Physical Triage

Hunger: feeding children is a big deal. Childhood malnutrition is associated with a host of bad outcomes, and this is a primary responsibility of our social services school. The cafeteria is open to all students during school hours, and students who enter hungry can go straight there.

Injury: there should be a wide array of child and adolescent health resources, from basic disinfectant + band-aid treatment for scrapes to tests for flu, chicken pox, etc. Vaccinations could be done with parental consent. Stomach aches, cramps, female health issues, and so on should all be accommodated. Students can go straight to the doctor’s/nurse’s office for treatment.

Exposure: if the child is homeless or otherwise exposed to the elements, whatever corrective measures need to be taken should be.

Emotional Triage

External Emotional Distress: is the child in emotional distress originating from an outside source? Are they being abused, severely neglected, or traumatized by someone else (parents, bullies, etc.)? The child should be diverted to a combination of a case worker/social worker and a counselor/therapist; the former for documentation and possible legal action (if necessary) and the latter for treatment.

Internal Emotional Distress: is the child in emotional distress not caused by a specific outside source? Are they depressed, do they have an eating disorder, are they clinically anxious or do they want help learning coping strategies? If so, the child should have the option to work with a counselor or therapist on these issues.

Long-Term Issues

Records: One of the benefits of using these sieves every day is the ability to create records and see patterns. If a child comes to school injured multiple times, that’s an indication something might be wrong at home. If the child enters the school hungry day after day, that could be the parent simply relying on the school to feed their child, or it could mean the parent is neglecting them.

Case Workers: Any long-term issue should show up in a short-term issue first, and if a pattern emerges - or the case is sufficiently serious - a case worker/social worker should track the issue. They wouldn’t necessarily intervene if the child’s need/distress is being met/resolved by the school, but they act as the link between the child and other government services (police, CPS, etc.) in cases where the child’s home life is bad enough to warrant intervention. They should also liaise with the child’s parents if possible.

Special Needs

Physical disabilities: If the child has physical disabilities, are their needs being met? Do they have whatever mobility assistance they need (wheelchair/crutch/cane)? If their disability is permanent, do they have access to resources (braille/screen readers, text-to-speech, sign language)? If they need supervision, are they getting it?

Mental/Emotional Disabilities: If the child is severely autistic or has a disease or genetic condition impairing normal functioning, they should be diverted to a smaller, specific section of the school specializing in supervising and caring for children with those needs.

Caveats

There are a number of objections that could be raised to the sieve model, both in principle and in practice. I’ll enumerate and address some below.

Objection: Parents won’t want to take their children to the Social Services School, because it’ll be low status, i.e. an admission that they can’t take care of their child.

Response: We can separate parents out into two groups, those for whom the above apply and those for whom it doesn’t; we don’t have to concern ourselves with the former. For the parents that do care what it looks like, I have two responses. First, hopefully it becomes culturally acceptable to bring one’s child to the Social Services School, and efforts should be made to make this happen. Second, as we’ll see in part 3, the idea of having two distinct “schools” - Social Services and Educational - is a way to think about the problem, not an actual suggestion. Eventually we’ll combine both schools back down into a single public school.

Objection: Children won’t answer the questions honestly.

Response: This is an existing problem at current public schools; my proposal doesn’t make things worse.

Second Response: There are two categories of lying here, each of which deserves its own response.

Children say they’re okay when they’re actually in distress: this is inevitable, and children should not be pushed without great cause. We don’t want a repeat of past moral panics. The best solution here is for children to see with their own eyes, over time, that their answers are taken seriously and that the system works to help those who admit they need it.

Children say they’re in distress when they’re actually okay: this is also inevitable, and we should generally not question the children even if they’re lying. Children lie for a purpose, and the way this system is set up, they don’t actually have a lot to gain from lying. Importantly, they can use the facilities to eat, sleep, see a nurse or counselor, etc. at any time of their own volition. They don’t have to lie to get out of school, so to speak. And if they did, then they’d be missing out on access to the other facilities available to them, which means missing out on fun.

Objection: This would be most useful in areas with a lot of poverty. Because the children aren’t being educated, it would increase inequality in various ways.

Response: In part this will be answered in part 3 where we combine the two different models of schools. But even on its own, I suspect that what I’ve proposed is at least as good as what exists today for children in poverty. By competently addressing the most pressing physical and emotional needs of these children, we can create an environment in which learning is possible, even if nothing is directly taught. That’s a better environment than many in poor areas have to contend with in public schools today.

Objection: Raising children is the parents’ job, not the school’s. Taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for this.

Response: I am sympathetic to this argument in general, except that:

Children did not have the choice to be born, and so should not suffer for the circumstances of their birth, and

The Taxpayer is already paying for this, just in a grossly inefficient way, and

Raising a child is the ultimate responsibility of their parent(s); schools are one of many tools a parent can use to this end. If the parent wants to home school their child or send them to a private or charter school, that’s fine. They can do that. Public school, no matter how it’s designed, should never be the only option - but it’s unrealistic to believe that it will suddenly disappear or that taxpayers won’t continue to pay for it.

Objection: But these children won’t learn anything!

Response: This will be addressed in more detail in part 3. That said, I have large doubts that they’re learning anything in the current system. Beyond basic literacy and numeracy, most general education is either forgotten or not useful to most children. At least here the children will be able to explore their own interests if they want, instead of being treated like prisoners and told where to sit, what to do, when to eat and go to the bathroom, etc. for half of their waking hours.

Constraints

The sieve model meets the requirements outlined above. But does it meet our constraints?

Political

I’m hardly the best judge of what’s politically radical, but seeing as the sieves are basically a better implementation of a job many schools are already doing, I would hope that it’s not too outside the Overton Window.

Costs

Given that it’s not politically ridiculous, what about cost?

I’ll use figures from Baltimore County Public Schools below, as an example of a county that already has its schools performing substantial public services.

Edit: It was pointed out to me that Baltimore County and Baltimore City are not the same. That being said, the numbers don’t appear to be that different.

For comparison, Baltimore City public schools have a budget of $1.7 billion and about 78,000 students, or about $21,800 per student (although it’s reported that they only spend $16,370 per student; I’m not sure where the discrepancy comes from). Also note that, in Baltimore City’s budget, they report spending about 1/3 of their budget on support services, as opposed to instruction.

The county has a budget for fiscal year 2024 of $2.58 billion, and serves approximately 112,000 children, or about $23,000 per student. This is inflated somewhat due to COVID relief funding, from what I can tell.

In fiscal year 2018 (so no COVID relief funding), the county had $1.43 billion and served about 80,000 students, or about $18,000 per student.

Extensive social services are already provided by the school system (emphasis mine):

During the 2018-19 school year, City Schools operated 172 schools and programs, serving 79,297 students through elementary schools (Pre-kindergarten through 5th grade), K-8 schools (Pre-kindergarten through 8th grade), traditional middle schools (grades 6 through 8), high schools (grades 9 through 12), and transformational schools (grades 6 through 12). Among these are several different school types, including schools with entrance criteria, schools and programs focused on career and technology education (CTE), charter schools, and alternative option schools. City Schools also offers a range of student services through guidance counselors, nurses, psychologists, mental health providers and social workers. For students with special needs, an extensive special education program provides services at the pre-school, elementary, middle, and high school instructional levels. Technology education, gifted and advanced programs, English for Speakers of Other Languages, dual enrollment programs and theme-based programs are available throughout City Schools for students with special interests and needs.

Based on this link, in the 2022-2023 school year, 14.5% of students received special education services and 66.3% of students were eligible for free/reduced price meals.

So we’ve got money to work with.

Hypothetical

Get ready for a Fermi estimate (back-of-the-envelope math).

Let’s imagine a hypothetical school with 100 students and $20,000 per student, for a total budget of $2,000,000 per year. This isn’t too unreasonable for a hypothetical, given existing school system spending per child in the US.

Next we’ll assume that the basic facilities have already been paid for - the school building already exists, for instance. This won’t always be true, but for the moment we’ll just be repurposing existing school buildings for our social services schools.

The average teacher’s salary in the US is about $66,000/year. If our budget was solely spent on teachers, we could afford around 30 of them, or one teacher per 3-4 students.

Of course, we have other things to pay for. Based on this analysis (confirmed here), a high school of a thousand students might pay around $150,000 for energy (electricity and heating). Scaling this back to our hypothetical school of 100 students would mean a $15,000 energy budget. Of course, there are other utilities to pay for. This report from Texas has total utilities, including energy costs, coming in at around $300 per student per year.

One hundred students * $300 = $30,000 per year spent on utilities for our school.

What about food? We want roughly enough food to feed 100 children their full calorie needs per day. At 2,000 calories per day * 100 children, we’ll need 200,000 calories per day (an overestimate, but that’s fine for our purposes). At a generous average of 40 cents per 100 calories, this is .40 * 200,000/100 = $800/day of food. A school year is 180 days, so that’s $144,000 for food throughout the year.

Assume that other supplies (basic medical supplies, sports supplies, office supplies, etc.) takes up another $50,000 per year (I eyeballed this, but the number doesn’t seem crazy based on this report’s Table 3, which has e.g. health services costs in the $150 per student per year range).

Transportation is another $1,000 per student per year ($100,000 total), according to the previous table.

Totaling everything together, out of our original budget of $2,000,000, we have:

2,000,000 - 30,000 - 144,000 - 50,000 - 100,000 = $1,676,000

I’m surely missing other costs. Public schools pay few taxes, but they do pay some. To be safe, let’s just use a round number and say that non-salary expenses total to $500,000 a year, which leaves us with $1.5 million left to pay salaries with.

Edit: I was given some feedback stating (correctly) that salaries are only a part of compensation. Total compensation (health insurance, paid time off, retirement contributions, etc.) often comes to an additional third of the salary. In other words, an employee actually costs (4/3)*salary. To compensate for this, we’ll multiply our $1.5 million by (3/4), so we can keep using the salary numbers below, leaving us with $1.125 million to spend on salaries.

So who are we paying?

Well, we need social workers, counselors, nurses, and adult supervisors:

Social workers will cost us $75,000 per year

Counselors will cost us $60,000 per year

Nurses will cost us $60,000 per year

Adult supervisors will cost us $40,000 per year (This isn’t exactly an existing job, and should require little qualification beyond background checks.)

So, for 100 children, we could have:

2 nurses, 5 counselors, 5 social workers, 8 adult supervisors

Which seems reasonable enough for me. Depending on the school and the children’s needs, those numbers could be changed. Swap out two nurses for two counselors, or four social workers for five counselors, or two adult supervisors for a social worker, and so on.

All told, we tend to get at least 20 adults per 100 children, which seems fine (and plausibly better than existing schools).

If we need an administrator, they cost roughly $100,000 per year, so we can swap out a nurse and an adult supervisor.

This analysis is far from comprehensive or rigorous, but it seems to indicate that the social services model of school is plausible, given existing school budgets. I realize that there are other factors involved, but even if we could only afford 15-20 adults per 100 students, I believe that the model still functions.

Conclusion

The Sieve Model of school-as-social-services streamlines and standardizes a role that existing schools are already trying to fill, to varied results. It prioritizes the physical, mental, and emotional health of children over their education, focusing on addressing both short- and long-term issues children are facing.

In part 2, we’ll discuss how I would design the school-as-education model, and then in part 3 we’ll unify the models to create a coherent view of what a new kind of public school could look like.

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For comparison, Baltimore City public schools have a budget of $1.7 billion and about 78,000 students, or about $21,800 per student (although it’s reported that they only spend $16,370 per student; I’m not sure where the discrepancy comes from). Also note that, in Baltimore City’s budget, they report spending about 1/3 of their budget on support services, as opposed to instruction.

most of the time if you look close there is an * on official $/child stats, which excludes buildings, 'long term' costs(bond repayments), and cross-government payments(school/district/state resource sharing and budget games). 

It is convenient when requesting increased funding from voters to be able to use a 25-35% lower number and pretend that everyone implicitly knows you are excluding all facilities and 'fixed' costs ofc :/ 

recommend skimming your local district's annual superintendent report sometime. Balance sheet totals/student  are a fun one in appreciating property markets ;)