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Social work education needs boost


From the President

Jeane Anastas, PhD, LMSW

For those of us in education, September brings us back to the start of the traditional school year.

In this past year, Richard Arum and Josipa Roska’s 2011 book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, raised some questions for us. Specifically, it finds that students majoring in social work (along with those in business and education) score the lowest among undergraduates on academic achievement.

How does a fast-growing field such as social work — which requires both the synthesis and application of complex knowledge — not provide one of the more rigorous courses of study in our colleges and universities? Can a field that produces Nobel Peace Prize winners, top-ranking government officials, innovative community leaders, well-respected clinicians, and many others showcased at the recent “Restoring Hope” conference lack educational rigor?

The test cited in Arum and Roska’s research is called the Collegiate Learning Assessment. Using computers that also provide background material for the test questions, test takers are given 90 minutes to respond to a question that may require writing an effective memo about a controversial business decision affecting airline safety, or writing arguments pro and con for a political candidate’s position on crime reduction.

The test does not address specific content knowledge; rather it asks students to apply critical thinking and reasoning skills to complex scenarios with human consequences (e.g., product safety, social policy).

What predicted success on this test? A central finding was that the rigor of the courses that students took made a big difference. Students were asked if they took a course that had 40 pages of reading a week, 20 pages of writing over the semester, or both. Whatever the major, those who said “yes” to one or especially to “both” did better on the test.

Undergraduate social work, business and education students were least likely to say they had taken a course with one or both aspects of rigor. Would most MSW students answer differently?

There were many other factors related to student achievement that we might expect: parents’ educational attainment, the quality of students’ educational preparation at the secondary school level and the selectivity of the educational institution — all of which also related to student race and ethnicity.

Social work, business and education programs often had higher proportions of students with risk factors in their backgrounds and were less likely to be located in highly selective colleges and universities. Higher achievement was also linked to those who received scholarships versus loans.

It is always tempting to explain away research findings that make us uncomfortable. The social work profession welcomes students from across the socioeconomic spectrum and strives to be as diverse as its client base. Our strength lies in the dedication and creativity of those who choose social work over other careers because it meets two core values: advocacy and service.

But social work practice also requires clear thinking about complex situations and the ability to formulate a view and express it effectively to a variety of audiences. This leads me to believe that increasing student skills in critical thinking, reading comprehension and writing is essential to career success.

Equally important are fresh approaches to classroom learning, the range of field placements we offer students, sources of academic funding and the variety of employers we recruit to hire our graduates.

It has been well-documented that the complexity of practice challenges social workers face is increasing. We owe it to future professionals and our nation to replicate and expand the very best of what our profession provides in training for nonprofit leadership, medical social work, psychotherapy, community organizing, child protection, aging services and much more.

As we begin another school year — as full-time faculty, adjunct faculty, field instructors, mentors, administrators and students — I challenge us all to seek out and demand the best of ourselves.

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