Educators Enrich Social Work Debate

James J. Kelly, Ph.D., ACSW, LCSWFrom the President

This month, the Council on Social Work Education will host its 55th Annual Program Meeting in San Antonio. With more than 3,000 participants expected, this year's meeting presents an important opportunity for many of our profession's most visible academic leaders to take stock of current circumstances and plan for a more robust future.

Ideas and strategies that are discussed at the CSWE meeting, the annual National Association of Deans and Directors meeting and the Association of Baccalaureate Social Work Program Directors conference in March can help set the stage for a productive Social Work Congress in April 2010.

NASW is fortunate to have a wide variety of members, including students, general practitioners, clinicians, researchers, policymakers, administrators and hundreds of educators. Approximately 80 percent of social work program deans and directors belong to NASW, and a significant portion of our chapter and national volunteer boards and committees are from the schools of social work.

Representation by social work educators in discussions about practice advances, advocacy efforts and professional ethics means that NASW can have informed debate about a range of issues affecting the profession. Although goals for educators and practitioners are not always perfectly aligned, both perspectives help NASW better serve its members and advocate social change. Collectively, we have a rich heritage and are needed now more than ever.

Social work education in the United States began with only a few training programs established in partnership with charitable organizations at the end of the 19th century and has grown to 641 accredited baccalaureate and master's programs and more than 70 doctoral programs. These programs represent over 7,000 faculty and administrators and more than 60,000 students at the baccalaureate, master's and doctoral level, with at least one level of program represented in each of the states and territories.

Social work educators are the backbone of the social work profession, combining their education, expertise and experience to ensure that students have all the tools necessary to succeed in their chosen area of practice. Our educators ensure a workforce prepared to tackle some of society's most pressing problems.

Many social work students choose the profession because their first social work professor had a profound effect on them. Through a student's coursework and field experiences, they are taught to be engaging community organizers, skilled clinicians, powerful political leaders and effective direct practitioners. Professors help students understand the roots of social work, and then inspire them to make a real difference in the world.

But as we recruit more students to our ranks, we must also address serious workforce challenges facing our profession. Low salaries, high educational debt and safety concerns can be barriers to attracting the best and the brightest. As colleges and departments of social work recruit new students, who now have a dizzying array of professional options, it's important to help them understand that once they graduate they are entering a profession with history, influence and vision. Social work educators serve as leaders and role models for students and many explain the importance of NASW membership.

The NASW Code of Ethics and Social Work Speaks are core reading material in many social work programs. Students should also know that the Social Work Reinvestment Initiative increases state and federal advocacy efforts on behalf of social work education, training, research and workforce retention. The Dorothy I. Height and Whitney M. Young Jr. Social Work Reinvestment Act reintroduced in Congress this year is the centerpiece of this campaign. The ANSWER Coalition — a collaboration among social work education, research and practice organizations — serves as the SWRI steering committee.

Although we may not agree on everything, education-focused and practice-focused social work organizations must redouble our efforts to convince more people that the profession is a rewarding and viable career choice. We must also enhance the vigor of professional preparation and ensure that our workforce reality lives up to its mission and promise.

We all have a stake in this success.