Are School Social Work Courses Responding to the Changing Context?

Oct 28, 2010

Shifts in the educational landscape affect services for students and the context in which school social workers practice.  Broad changes in education have consequences for social work practice—specifically, the ability of school social workers to align services with school goals.

For example, more emphasis on student and teacher accountability and the expansion of school choice, charter schools and vouchers, calls for social workers to practice multilevel, evidence-based interventions.

In the October 2010 issue of Children & Schools (NASW Press) researchers Stephanie Cosner Berzin and Sarah O’Connor published a study of school social work syllabi to determine whether practice methods that reflect the new educational paradigm are being taught to social work students.

The study examined school social work syllabi from MSW programs and looked to see whether courses incorporated content related to relevant trends in education and school social work.  The researchers found that the course content was highly driven toward clinical preparation, and had significantly less emphasis on embedding school social workers in the educational context.  Attention to defining the roles of school social work was also apparent, but inconsistencies remain between school social work practice, theory and education.

Although theoretical models and school social work scholars have been calling for multilevel practice and a stronger voice within education reform, the course content indicated by the surveyed syllabi does not address this need.

The study indicates that training may be inadequate to support school social workers in more systemic roles.  Syllabi also show limited preparation for trends that affect students’ social and emotional needs and new interventions that are thought to support them.  Furthermore, the study revealed gaps in educational content that may hinder school social workers from fully engaging in the education system and with a broad range of education professionals.  Lack of attention to content on attendance, learning, and school failure may isolate school social work professionals from general education goals.

The researchers suggest changes to school social work course content to strengthen skills for multilevel practice.  In addition to the currently emphasized clinical training, they suggest adding coursework and other training to help school social workers:

  • become involved in school committees;
  • participate in school decision making;
  • advocate for policy change;
  • provide effective presentations and training to school personnel;
  • create school-wide initiatives to support practice goals;
  • use social competency training or character-building initiatives to support school culture;
  • engage with community stakeholders;
  • involve community agencies in school initiatives;
  • provide consultation for teachers;
  • strengthen family involvement; and
  • build family support programs within the school.

Through training at the MSW level, school social workers could learn not only what is meant by these multiple practice levels, but also how to implement a broader intervention model.  School social work educators could help organize practice across multiple systems and guide future directions for the field.