Abstract The current environment for school social work presents great challenges and great opportunities. Amid promising shifts in programs and policies, many school social workers feel marginalized. Despite sustained efforts at definition, the role of the school social worker remains unclear to many outside the field. More important, this role is often characterized as being peripheral to the core beliefs, goals, and practices of schools. To fulfill the promise of efforts toward role definition, school social workers must find ways to integrate their role with the central aims and activities of educational institutions. Whereas in the past school social work has largely been conceptualized as the practice of social work in schools or for schools, these characterizations have limited understanding of the potential contributions of social workers to education. In response, the authors present a conceptual model for the practice of social work with schools. This model calls for increased attention to educational policy and practice, improved skills for consultation and collaboration with educators, and an expansion of the field of educational issues to which school social workers can provide critical expertise. These are promising times to be a school social worker, although some may disagree with this statement. For school social workers tasked with managing traffic in the critical intersections between schools and increasingly complex social conditions, our attention seems long overdue. Amid the change created by moving toward standards and accountability, teacher evaluation, and school privatization, a strong yet subtle movement toward schools that embrace the social reality of education has also occurred. And yet, funding is decreasing, children and families are suffering, and many school social workers feel that their jobs are under siege (Whittlesey-Jerome, 2012, 2013). Whereas in the past school social work has largely been conceptualized as the practice of social work in schools or for schools, these characterizations have limited understanding of the broad potential contributions of social workers to education. Although the challenges presented by shrinking public school budgets and high-stakes academic environments are undeniable, we suggest that some of the most pressing challenges come from within the system itself, exemplified by a professional literature that continues to reflect these challenges and the covert (or in some cases overt) attempts to further marginalize the role of the school social worker. To fulfill the promise of these efforts, school social workers must integrate their role with the central aims and activities of educational institutions—they must find a way to make social work knowledge, values, and skills align with the educational aims, programs, and policies. In this article, we present a conceptual model for the practice of social work with schools, harnessing the potential of the current moment through renewed attention to the school social workers’ roles in the educational system and the policies that guide their practice. Opportunities and Challenges for School Social Work Promising Programs and Policies In the years since the implementation, failures, and subsequent revision of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (P.L. 107–110), educational programs and policies have taken two widely divergent tracks. One track focuses on promoting a high-stakes educational environment characterized by movement toward increasing standards and accountability, whereas the other aims to create schools that recognize and respond to the holistic needs of children. Programs and approaches such as Schoolwide Positive Behavior Supports and social–emotional learning are being adopted at a rapid rate by schools and districts (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, 2015; Spaulding, Horner, May, & Vincent, 2008). Other comprehensive approaches, such as the Community School Model, are also gaining the attention of educators and policymakers (Coalition for Community Schools, 2016; Community Schools Act, 2013). New policies require positive approaches to school discipline (Illinois P.L. 99-0456, 2015) at the state level and the measurement and reporting of nonacademic indicators of school quality such as school climate, attendance, and social–emotional learning at the state level (Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015) (P.L. 114-95). The prevalence of these programs and the emergence of attention to nonacademic issues in federal legislation suggest that the educational policy environment is ripe with opportunity for school social work. Role Definition To capitalize on these developments, many have suggested that a clear and coherent model for school social work practice is needed. Indeed, the variety of activities undertaken by school social workers makes it difficult to succinctly describe what they do. In response to this ambiguity, the field has sought to clarify what school social workers do and how social work knowledge, values, and skills underlie these activities. Efforts at Self-Definition Practice models have been used to counter role ambiguity. Richard and Villareal-Sosa (2014) collected data from school social workers in Louisiana to articulate a model for practice in that state. In doing so, they identified four areas of practice—micro, macro, evaluation, and supervision, each of which are supported by four key values and skills that included accountability and data-based decision making; family, staff, and community collaboration; advocacy; and cultural competency. Just one year earlier, the School Social Work Association of America published its own practice model (Frey, Alvarez, et al., 2013) identifying three key areas of practice: provision of education, behavior and mental health services; promotion of a positive school culture; and facilitation of access to resources. These practices are supported by four key constructs: home–school community linkages, ethical guidelines and educational policy, education rights and advocacy, and data-based decision making. Perceptions of School Social Work Although practice models are critical to role clarification, the ways in which others conceive of the role of the school social worker are equally important. Current research supports the notion that other school-based professionals have an unclear picture of the role of the social worker and mixed perceptions of their efficacy. This perceived ambiguity likely has an adverse impact on the degree to which others in schools understand and value school social workers (Richard & Villareal-Sosa, 2014; Whittlesey-Jerome, 2012, 2013). Anand (2010) found that although a majority (78 percent) of teachers supported the need for school social workers, less than one-third actively referred their students to school social workers, often believing that they were too removed from students to intervene effectively. In regard to administrative perceptions, Tower (2000) found that administrators tended to undervalue social workers because of role ambiguity, and Higy, Haberkorn, Pope, and Gilmore (2012) found that preservice school administrators had widely varying perceptions of what school social workers could or should do. Bye, Shepard, Partridge, and Alvarez (2009) found that administrators and social workers largely based assessment of social work efficacy on outcomes in attendance and discipline. The reality that other school-based helping professionals have included in their own practice models many activities that were traditionally within the domain of social work (Agresta, 2004) likely contributes to mixed perceptions and can create an environment in which “much of their [school social workers’] time seems to be wasted in trying to make a place for themselves” (Anand, 2010, p. 242). Advancing a Theory of Impact Clearly, role definition matters. And yet, role ambiguity persists despite significant efforts toward establishing models of practice. It can be argued that the full implications of these new models and standards are currently being worked out. However, these efforts are limited in their ability to advance a theory of impact for school social work, a justification for the centrality of social work in education. We suggest that working toward the integration of the role of the social worker into the essential aims and practices of schools, that is, the forging of deep and meaningful partnerships between social workers and schools, is the critical next step. What follows is an exploration of how the role of the school social worker has been conceived of as either social work in or for schools and the limitations of each conception. In response, we advance a new way to understand school social work as the practice of social work with schools. Toward the Practice of Social Work with Schools Beyond Social Work in and for Schools School social work has long struggled with tension between direct and systemic practice while working to articulate the position of the social worker in relationship to the school. The emergence of visiting teachers in the early 1900s reflected a more systemic model of practice derived from convergence of interest between schools struggling to meet compulsory attendance mandates and social workers seeking new avenues to promote the positive functioning of children and families (Allen-Meares, 2010). The strong association between school social work and special education since the 1970s created a new role for school social work. However, it also contributed to what has been characterized largely by a tension between clinical and social reform perspectives (Allen-Meares, 1993), altered the relationship between social workers and schools, and perpetuated what Kelly, Frey, and Anderson-Butcher (2011) described as “a division in our educational system that has taken more than five decades to overcome” (p. 67). We suggest shedding the clinical versus systemic dichotomy; another potential way to describe diverging models of school social work practice can be found in exploring the positional relationship between social workers and schools. Are schools seen as host institutions in which social workers provide services for some students? Are schools seen as employers for whom social workers meet critical organizational needs? Or, are schools seen as partner institutions with whom social workers work to improve child well-being? Conceptualizing the relationship between social work and schools in positional terms serves to highlight the historical tension between identity as social workers and school-based practitioners while suggesting the possibility of a new way of embracing these identities. Social Work in Schools First, we considered the notion of social work in schools. In this conception, school social workers are outsiders, hosted by schools. Implied is the idea that social work may be important in supporting the education of some children, but it may not be relevant to all students. Also implied is the idea that the school is primarily a location and that the existence of social workers in this space is somewhat a matter of convenience. In this conception, social workers exist in schools to address the nonacademic problems that impede student success and the role of the social worker is to intervene with children who experience those problems. The tendency for school social workers to serve as de facto family case managers, mental health practitioners, or behavior interventionists within the school is highly reflective of the social work in schools conception. The identification of school social work with mental health, behavior, and family support has allowed for the provision of critical services to students in schools. And yet, the understanding of school social work as social work housed in a school limits its potential. This conception allows for a strong social work identity, although it may suggest that this identity is peripheral to education. Social workers bring an ecological perspective to their work that remains underused when they are viewed exclusively as clinicians working in schools, and the potential for integration of their skills into the aims and activities of the school is lost. In the words of Anand (2010), “the clinic-based practice of social work is clearly unable to effectively further the purpose of schools by providing a setting for teaching and learning” (p. 243). Social Work for Schools In this conception, school social workers are insiders, with the implication that social workers have skills or credentials that are necessary to the organizational aims or policy mandates of schools. Social workers exist to address the nonacademic concerns that schools encounter on an organizational level. The tendency for school social workers to serve as de facto attendance officers, deans of discipline, and special education coordinators is reflective of the social work for schools conception. Supporting student attendance and promoting positive discipline are ways in which schools can support the success of their students, and the provision of effective service to students with disabilities is a critical effort. School social workers often support schools to support students. However, they must be able to maintain the professional distance necessary to exercise criticism and serve as advocates. Conceptualizing school social work as social work for schools may contribute to a loss of a strong social work identity. Although school social work holds many values in common with education, it cannot afford to serve exclusively those aims that are readily identified by schools as necessary. The consignment of school social work exclusively to roles characterized by social work in or for schools unnecessarily limits its legitimacy and its effectiveness. Sherman (2016) argued against the limitation of school social work to such roles, suggesting that while these roles have served the needs of some students and schools and have provided job security for school social workers, they have decreased the visibility of school social workers and, thus, their ability to improve the well-being of all students. She further asserted that “the social workers’ aptitude to serve as school policy makers and instructional supervisors is an untapped reservoir of potential for educational systems” (p. 147) and that school social workers must avail themselves of current trends in education policy and programming “and grow in their organizational and instructional practices to meet the needs of all students” (p. 151). We suggest that expanding our understanding of school social work to include the practice of social work with schools is a critical step toward accomplishing these tasks. Role Integration through Social Work with Schools What would it take to move away from the almost exclusive identification with social work in and for schools? Phillippo and Stone (2011) advocated for a movement toward the systematic practice of school social work that is informed by knowledge of educational and organizational theory and policy. Building on this notion, Phillippo and Blosser (2013) explored the concept of interstitial practices to understand whether school social work is better characterized as a social work specialty or a unique interdisciplinary (interstitial) profession. Although the case for fully embracing interstitial practice has had various success, voices in the field are calling for school social work practice that is highly informed by and integrated with educational policies and practices while maintaining the social work identity necessary to engage in macro-level practice; this is the practice of social work with schools. The primary endeavor of the school is and will always be academic. As school leaders and policymakers awaken to the reality that academic learning is inherently social, the role of school social work becomes increasingly relevant to their endeavor. The practice of social work with schools presents an opportunity for the integration of social work knowledge, values, and skills into the primary endeavor of the school. Figure 1 presents the integral differences between conceptions of social work in, for, and with schools; the innermost circles in the model reflect the relationship between social work knowledge, values, and skills and educational practice and policy within each conception. We advocate for a revitalization of the practice of social work with schools, but this does not mean that the practices and roles described in the rest of the model are obsolete. Although the three conceptions may reflect different ways to understand the relationships between social workers and schools, the practice of social work with schools provides a critical avenue for social work to have greater representation in educational policy and programming. These practices may enhance role integration by supporting the understanding of school social work as central to the educational endeavor. Kelly et al. (2011) described the possible ways in which the role of the school social worker could shift by 2031, suggesting that school social workers would be “reformers,” “three-tier intervention experts,” “organizational consultants,” and “referral experts and resource coordinators” (pp. 68–69). These and similar roles are the manifestation of social work with schools. Figure 1: View largeDownload slide Visualizing Role Integration---Social Work in, for, and with Schools Figure 1: View largeDownload slide Visualizing Role Integration---Social Work in, for, and with Schools Implications and New Directions This article aims to add our voices to the growing chorus suggesting that if school social work is to play a critical role in improving the lives of children, a renewed focus on educational organization, policy, and interdisciplinary collaboration between social workers and other school-based professionals is necessary. Change is seldom easy, and a large-scale shift toward the practice of social work with schools will require changes on multiple levels including training, development, professional identification, practice, policy engagement, and research. Training, Professional Development, and Professional Identity Because of a patchwork of different requirements from state educational licensing and professional licensing boards, educational qualifications to become a school social worker vary dramatically from state to state. In our home state of New Mexico, the Public Education Department requires that school social workers must have a BSW or MSW and a state social work license (New Mexico Public Education Department, 2016); no education-specific coursework, testing, or field experiences are required. Compare this to the state of Illinois, which requires an MSW with a specialization in school social work, a test of basic skills along with a school social work-specific exam, and 600 hours of supervised experience in a school social work field placement (Illinois State Board of Education, 2016). It is easy to understand the ways in which these disparate requirements lead to disparate foundational knowledge, skills, and models of practice. Differences between state-level requirements are likely contributors to the variability in perceptions of school social work and discrepancies in the services provided to schools and students. This reality supports the case for working toward increased consistency across state boundaries (Altshuler & Webb, 2009). In addition to changes to licensure requirements, the form and content of training that school social workers undergo must be considered. Phillippo and Stone (2011) suggested that a move toward systemic practice would require a more education-oriented knowledge base with a stronger focus on school policy and organization. Some schools of social work have responded by understanding these somewhat unique skill sets as practice specialty and adapting their programs accordingly. The University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, for example, has begun to offer an MSW program titled Leadership in Community Schools, designed to introduce and teach new roles to social workers who will or are working in urban school settings (School of Social Service Administration, 2016). Programs like this may lead the way in training social workers for more integrated, systemic roles in schools. Beyond such programs, encouraging school social workers to receive training in educational leadership and to pursue administrative roles in schools could have lasting positive effects. School leaders with a social work background could lead the way in organizing schools based on social work values and skills or to provide much-needed administrative support to those who continue to work as practitioners. Many social workers feel that “school systems are controlled by educators who want to dump all their problems on social workers. They do not understand family dynamics, students who have emotional problems, and the roles of social workers” (Whittlesey-Jerome, 2011, p. 46). School systems are (naturally) controlled by educators. Social workers could work to bridge this gap by serving as leaders within their schools and seeking more formal leadership roles, if they so desire. Training programs could work to educate future school social workers and administrators together to allow for the type of interprofessional development and interaction necessary for future collaboration. In moving toward a more collaborative practice of school social work, practitioners should find new ways to articulate their role in terms that are understood by educators and administrators. Practitioners regularly lament that “the districts need to be educated as to what a school social worker is capable of doing. Some districts don’t care to learn” (Whittlesey-Jerome, 2011, p. 43). Given this need, social workers and their professional organizations must continue to inform our educational partners while operating within a framework of empathy for them, most of whom are struggling with the same issues confronting school social work. The strongest potential for decreasing marginalization of the school social worker is found in the confluence of interests between their skills, their own goals, and the goals of the school in the face of common challenges. Movement toward educational policy work on a larger scale speaks to the need for increased and improved training in social work macro practice broadly. Rothman and Mizrahi (2014), considering what they saw as a significant dearth of training and support for macro practice, described the demand for social workers who can engage in “complex and sustained intervention at all levels of practice” (p. 91). School social workers need better training on the policy and institutional environments in schools, but they also need more foundational education in macro practice itself. Macro practice requires examination and intervention in the systems that contribute to individual and group needs. It is important to note that students who exit their training with a strong foundation in the skills and values of macro practice are much more likely to engage in this type of systemic work in their future practice (Crutchfield, Funge, & Jennings, 2016). Thus, social work with schools is, at its core, an approach which seeks to “calibrate the micro–mezzo balance” (Rothman & Mizrahi, 2014, p. 93). We acknowledge the need for a stronger emphasis on macro practice in social work education to more fully prepare the school social workers of tomorrow—especially for those seeking to work with schools. Practice and Policy For those interested in moving toward the practice of social work with schools, some changes to practice could have an immediate impact. Mandates for providing special education services and behavioral interventions take a significant amount of time, and new ways of thinking about service provision could shift the role of the social worker. Given the drive toward evidence-based practices, Frey, Sabatino, and Alvarez (2013) suggested that social workers could serve as consultants in a supervisory role to ensure fidelity for interventions. Such an approach acknowledges that supporting socioemotional–behavioral needs of all students may not always require group or individual services. Not only would such an approach lessen the workload carried by most school social workers (Leyba, 2009), but it is more aligned with the person-in-environment roots of social work. In general, collaboration with other school staff is a key area to target for growth. Berzin et al. (2011) found that 10 percent of school social workers reported rarely collaborating with teachers and others. Another 21 percent reported working to coordinate services and communication between the school, the home, and the community but rarely or never engaging in consultation with other school staff. Berzin et al.’s (2011) findings suggest that nearly one-third of school social workers never or rarely provide support or consultation to school-based staff around issues in which they have expertise. This may stem from a lack of interprofessional understanding between teachers and school social workers. Teachers become frustrated as they struggle to support challenging students while feeling that the social worker is too removed to intervene (Anand, 2010). Similarly, social workers bristle when their suggestions receive a cool reception from teachers. These challenges may be addressed through focused attention on building teacher–social worker relationships and providing interdisciplinary opportunities for professional development around common issues. These activities hold promise to improve the perception of school social work and the well-being of all children through increasing skills for and time spent in consultation. In addition to skills for consultation, social work with schools requires an expanded notion of what issues might benefit from the attention of social workers. While school social work brings special expertise in mental health and behavior, there is a place for the voice of the social worker across educational practice and policy decisions around school-level issues such as technology, response to intervention, and curriculum. School social workers also have valuable insight to contribute to discussions of education reform at the state and national level. In 2004 Teasley suggested that “improvements in leadership and policymaking toward education reform is one of the most important roles that the social work profession can undertake and is a long-overdue task” (p. 28); 12 years later, this challenge still stands. This does not mean that social workers need to do more. In the words of one New Mexico social worker, “School administrators, coordinators, teachers, and related service providers want us to do everything including transportation for students and families, getting paperwork signed, including self-directed IEPs, staff training, transition plans, and increasing levels of data entry and documentation” (Whittlesey-Jerome, 2011, p. 43). We agree that the daily duties being put on social workers can be stifling and, in many ways, contribute to the re-entrenchment of the in and for schools mind-set. However, we reiterate that this sentiment is shared by others and propose that an adversarial relationship with those who share our concerns is counterproductive. Where these duties are being passed on, it is out of a similar sense of overload being experienced by teachers and administrators. Social workers should be partners in efforts to address policies that put unrealistic expectations on schools. The voice of school social workers in discussions around educational funding, staff evaluations, high-stakes testing, interventions, and required documentation is critical, but has not been particularly strong. Attention to this area and solidarity with teachers and administrators, when appropriate, will bring much greater yields than reactivity. Revisiting the notion of policy as practice in school social work (Essex & Massat, 2005) represents a critical step in the movement toward social work with schools. Future Research New directions in school social work research will also support the advancement of social work with schools. First, we need more research on the ways in which people in schools perceive school social workers. Given that school administrators have a critical influence on the hiring and defining the roles of social workers, in-depth studies of current administrator perceptions and areas that they would suggest for growth could be telling. In addition, further research into the ways in which school social workers and teachers understand one another and the impact of these perceptions on collaboration could be equally critical. Studies examining the variety of current school-based experiences of preservice school social workers and the role they play in shaping their role expectations as they enter the field could help to identify early learning experiences that might promote the practice of social work with schools. In addition, an expansion of the scope of social work research is in order. Whereas in the past social work research in schools has been largely characterized by studies of social workers or specific interventions, the practice of social work with schools will require a new research base. The application of a social work lens to what have been traditionally considered educational issues, especially where educational policy is concerned, represents a key area for growth. Social work researchers with command of current issues in education who can partner with educational researchers may represent the new frontier in school social work research. Conclusion School social work has a long and critical history in working to manage the intersections between schools and society to promote the well-being of all children. Many shifts in education policy and funding have coalesced to challenge schools broadly and school social work specifically. This has occurred within the context of historical movements that have largely characterized the profession as social work in or for schools. Although school social work practice models highlight multiple levels of practice, these characterizations are highly representative of the ways in which others have understood school social work, limiting the types of activities that are expected, assigned, or evaluated. We suggest that looking beyond these roles and taking steps to move toward the practice of social work with schools can serve to combat the marginalization felt by many in the field while improving practice outcomes. For future school social workers, this will require changes to training and credentialing, including a stronger foundation of macro practice in social work education, a reframing of the relationship between social work and educators, an improvement in skills of consultation and collaboration, an increase of knowledge of educational policy and organization, and an increase in willingness to be active advocates in and of educational policies that may have been viewed as outside the realm of social work in the past. Echoing Phillippo and Stone (2011), we recognize the potential for destabilization that these changes present but agree that they are what is needed to move school social work out of the margins and into the future. School social workers have worked hard for the privilege to support children and their families, teachers, administrators, and related support staff in schools. They have worked to implement best practices, to evaluate those practices, and to clarify their role in providing those practices. It is time to build on those successes and direct new efforts toward the integration of school social work and education through the practice of social work with schools. References Agresta, J. ( 2004). Professional role perceptions of school social workers, psychologists, and counselors. Children & Schools, 26, 151– 163. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Allen-Meares, P. ( 1993). Pull and push: Clinical or macro interventions in schools [Editorial Comments]. Children & Schools, 15, 3– 5. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Allen-Meares, P. ( 2010). Social work services in schools ( 6th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon. Altshuler, S. J., & Webb, J. R. ( 2009). School social work: Increasing the legitimacy of the profession. Children & Schools, 31, 207– 218. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Anand, M. ( 2010). 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Children & Schools – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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