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history of school social work

For the first time in modern times, the bulletins of the national association of school social workers  (formerly the american association of school social workers; american association of visiting teachers  and the national association of visiting teachers) are found in one easily accessible place. the bulletins  run from 1924-1955..

In the Early Era section , there are also newsletters going back to the 1930’s from the NASSW as well as other assorted publications.    The bulletins and the newsletters give the opportunity to explore the early history of visiting teacher – school social work in local school districts and individual states.

The New Skills Era begins with the formation of N.A.S.W. and ends with the birth of the School Social Work Association of America. Milestones in this 40 year period include the growth of new models of school social work from primarily a casework model to include group work and system interventions. And in the middle of the 40 years, P.L. 94-142 (The Education for All Handicapped Children Act) became law and working with special needs students became another significant role for school social workers. During this era, the number of school social work positions grew tremendously.  

The Current Era includes newsletters from SSWAA and from the International Network for School Social Work. It also lists current journals, school social work textbooks, and other resources for school social workers in print. One trend is the use of the evidence-based practice. Specific journal articles and books are not linked because of copyright restrictions.

This rich history of school social work is now available electronically for the practitioners, students, professors, historians and associations in the school social work community.

It also gives state, regional and national school social work associations a place to store and share their publications. This is a non-profit site with no charges or fees for access to this treasure trove of documents.  This site is not affiliated with any association,  university or publisher.

Many, many thanks to Randy Fisher for compiling, organizing and making available these historic documents contributed by school social work leaders over time. 

Graphics discovered and contributed  by Dr. Gary Lee Shaffer.

the history of school social work

Article contents

School social work.

In 2006, School social work celebrated 100 years as a vibrant profession. This entry details the genesis and development of this particular specialization to the early 21st century, exploring the history of the profession, including policy and legislation that has either resulted from or affected schools on a national level. Additionally, the entry explains the knowledge base of school social work, examines the regulation and standards for both practice and practitioners, and considers future trends for the field.

Updated in this version

This article is about the historical and evolution of social work practice in educational setting in the United States. It traces major influences that are shaping the current practice.

As practitioners and scholars alike continue to seek solutions and interventions for ever-changing social problems, school social work will continue to be defined by research and new knowledge developments in social work and related fields.

School social workers started as and remain an integral link among school, home, and community. Those who choose this particular field of social work provide direct services, as well as specialized services such as mental-health intervention, crisis management and intervention, and facilitating community involvement in the schools. Working as an interdisciplinary team member, school social workers not only continue to provide services to school children and their families, but also continue to evaluate their roles, services, and consequently modify them to meet organizational, contextual, and contemporary needs.

School social work as a discipline continues to develop in relation to social issues, needs of the school systems, continuing education, and evolving research, perhaps more so than other school-based disciplines. Statistics indicate a recent upswing in the number of school social workers or social-work services in schools. As a result, the Bureau of Labor Statistics ( 2012 ) estimates that employment of child, family, and school social workers is expected to increase by 20% between 2010 and 2020.

In the 21st century, practitioners will face evolving definitions of personhood and family, disparities in terms of quality education and health care, and job opportunities that will affect how children learn and function, not only in a school environment but also in their communities. Through it all, school social work will continue to change, thrive, and provide evidence-based solutions for children and families. Before discussing more fully the current trends and issues that are impacting, or have the potential to impact, school social-work practice, it is vital to revisit and examine its historical evolution.

Social work in schools began between 1906 and 1907 (Allen-Meares, 2006 ), with initial development outside the school system, as private agencies and civic organizations took on the work (Costin, 1969 ). It was not until 1913 that the first Board of Education initiated and financed a formal visiting teacher program, placing visiting teachers in special departments of the school under the administration and direction of the superintendent of schools.

Early Influences

As the school social-work movement gained momentum, the early 20th century proved to be a fruitful period in its development. Several important influences included the following:

The passage of compulsory school attendance laws : Concern regarding the illiteracy of youth brought attention to a child’s right to receive a minimum education and the states’ responsibility for providing it. This attention led to support for the enactment of compulsory attendance statutes, and by 1918 each state had passed its own version. The lack of effective enforcement led to the idea that school attendance officers were needed, and Abbott and Breckinridge ( 1917 ) held that this responsibility should be assigned to the school social worker.

Knowledge of individual differences : As the scope of compulsory education laws expanded, states were required to provide an educational experience for a variety of children. At the same time, new knowledge about individual differences among children began to emerge. Previous to this, there had been no real concern about whether children had different learning needs; those who presented a challenge were simply not enrolled.

During the 1920s the number and the influence of school social workers increased, largely as a result of a series of demonstrations held over 3 years, organized and funded by the Commonwealth Fund of New York (Oppenheimer, 1925 ), which provided financial support to the National Committee of Visiting Teachers and increased experimentation in the field of school social work.

The 1920s were also the beginning of a therapeutic role for school social workers in public schools. According to Costin ( 1978 ), the increasing recognition of individual differences among children and interest on the part of the mental hygienists in understanding behavior problems led to an effort on the part of visiting teachers to develop techniques for the prevention of social maladjustment.

Shifting Goals

The development of social-work service was greatly hindered during the Depression, with services either abolished or reduced in volume (Areson, 1923 ). As the Depression worsened, the social-work activity that did take place centered on ensuring that people’s basic needs were met. During this time, visiting teachers began viewing their role in a different way, with their early responsibilities as attendance officers being replaced by the burgeoning role of social caseworker.

Emphasis on Social Casework

By 1940 , the shift to social caseworker was complete. No longer were social change and neighborhood conditions seen as the sole points of intervention. Instead, the profession was beginning to build its clinical base, with the personality needs of the individual child taking primary attention.

Changing Goals and Methods

Public schools came under attack in many different ways during the 1960s. There were those who argued that public education was not sufficient. Several studies documented adverse school policies and claimed that inequality in educational opportunity existed as a result of racial segregation. There was considerable discussion about the need for change, including change in the practices of both social workers and guidance counselors.

During this time, group work, which had previously been introduced to the school system, was becoming a prominent method. In a research progress report, Robert Vinter and Rosemary Sarri described the effective use of group work in dealing with such school problems as high-school dropouts, underachievement, and academic failure (Vinter & Sarri, 1965 ).

Changing Demographics and Increased Recognition in Educational Legislation

During the 1970s the number of school social workers increased, and at the same time more emphasis was being placed on family, community, teaming with workers in other school-related disciplines, and the education of handicapped pupils.

Congress passed The Education for All Handicapped Children Act (1975), which had “impacted social work services in schools profoundly,” as “[s]ocial workers were named specifically as one of the related services required to help individuals with disabilities benefit from special education” (Atkins-Burnett, 2010 , p. 177). This would be the first time, but not the last, that the importance of school social workers was recognized and codified.

Educational legislation continues to play a major role in the definition and function of school social workers and in shaping and expanding the services they provide. In the 1980s school social workers were included as “qualified personnel” in Part H of the Education of the Handicapped Act Amendments of 1986 , the Early Intervention for Handicapped Infants and Toddlers, and the Elementary and Secondary School Improvement Amendments of 1988 .

The 1990s brought with them many more changes. National organizations grew and offered added support to the specialty. Codified standards for school social workers were edited and tailored for relevance, and states themselves began to take an active role in what it means to be a school social worker.

In 1994 school social workers were once again included in a major piece of legislation—the American Education Act, which included eight national goals, of which the major objectives were research promotion, consensus building, and systemic change, to ensure equality of educational opportunities for all students.

Additionally, two key pieces of legislation have influenced the job and roles of school social workers. In 1990 , the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was authorized. Amended several times, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act further refined services, eligibility, parent involvement, assessment and testing, and learning opportunities for students with disabilities or special needs (IDEA, 1991 ).

In 2002 , President George W. Bush signed into law a comprehensive and controversial piece of federal legislation titled the No Child Left Behind Act (2002). Reauthorized in 2006 , the act was conceived as a way to hold school systems and students accountable for learning and includes standards for those with special needs. The most recent No Child Left Behind legislation, enacted by the Obama administration in 2011, was the Elementary and Secondary Education Act Flexibility. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act Flexibility legislation allowed states to request waivers of specific provisions of No Child Left Behind to avoid unintentional barriers to state and local educational reforms (U.S. Department of Education, 2012 ).

Knowledge Base of School Social Work

As school social work evolved, so too did different practice models. A practice model may be defined as “a coherent set of directives which state how a given kind of treatment is to be carried out …. It usually states what a practitioner is expected to do or what practitioners customarily do under given conditions” (Reid & Epstein, 1972 , pp. 7–8).

Alderson ( 1972 ) offered four models of school social-work practice: the traditional clinical model, the school change model, the community school model, and the social interaction model.

Traditional Clinical Model

The best known and most widely used model is the traditional clinical model, which focuses on individual students with social and emotional problems that interfere with their potential to learn. The model’s primary base is psychoanalytic and ego psychology. The model’s major assumption is that the individual child or the family is experiencing difficult times or dysfunction. As a result, the school social worker’s role is that of a direct caseworker—providing services to the child or the family and not focusing on the school itself. School personnel are only involved as a source of information about the child’s behavior.

School Change Model

In contrast, the school change model’s target is, in fact, the school and changing any institutional policies, conditions, and practices that were seen as causing student dysfunction or malperformance. The school itself is considered the client, and school personnel are involved in discussion, identification, and change.

Community School Model

The community school model focuses primarily on communities with limited social and economic resources. The social worker’s role is to educate these communities about the school’s offerings, organize support for the school’s programs, and explain to school officials the dynamics and societal factors affecting the community. This model assumes that school personnel require ongoing and up-to-date information about social problems and their effects on school children to have a complete understanding.

Social Interaction

The social interaction model emphasizes reciprocal influences of the acts of individuals and groups. The target of intervention is the type and the quality of exchanges between parties (the child, groups of children, families, the school, and the community). The school social worker takes on the role of mediator and facilitator, with the goal of seeking common ground and common solutions.

Costin’s Model

Another important model grew out of a demonstration project of a multiuniversity consortium for planned change in pupil personnel services. An amalgamation of several methods, Lela B. Costin’s school–community–pupil relations model (Costin, 1973 ) emphasized the complexity of the interactions among students, the school, and the community. Especially relevant in today’s schools, its primary goal serves to bring about change in the interaction of this triad and, thus, to modify to some extent harmful institutional practices and policies of the school. In a national survey of school social work, authors found that school social workers largely provided mental-health services to at-risk children and their families. In addition, most of the services provided were tier-three services (Kelly et al., 2010 ).

Demographics and Standards

State-by-state regulation and requirements.

Since the early 1970s, the number of state associations of school social workers has risen. These organizations play an important part in heightening this field’s visibility and regulate the profession. Information on specific state associations for school social workers may be found at (School Social Work Association of America, 2012a ).

Nationwide Number of Social Workers

In 2010, there were approximately 650,000 social workers employed in the United States. Estimates suggest that 290,000 of these social workers were child, family, and school social workers. This number includes Child Protective Services, many other government jobs, and school social workers ( ).

Educational Requirements

In most states a Master’s of Social Work is required. However, some states allow certification at the entry level with a bachelor’s Degree (School Social Work Association of America, 2012b ).

Standards for Social-Work Services in Schools

In 1976 , the National Association of Social Workers ( NASW ) developed the first standards for school social-work services, which were grouped into three areas: attainment of competence, organization and administration, and professional practice. The NASW continues to provide guidelines, standards, and a Code of Ethics (NASW, 2008 ) for the social-work community, as well as specific standards for school social workers (NASW, 2012 ). Over the years, the NASW standards have been revised to contextualize this field of practice within new knowledge, new policies, and laws.

Resources for School Social Workers

In addition to its specific standards for school social work, the NASW offers specialized certification as a Certified School Social Work Specialist, as well as a dedicated specialty practice section.

In 1994 , spearheaded by the school social-work leadership, the School Social Work Association of America was formed, independent of the NASW (School Social Work Association of America, 2012c ). In addition, a new national organization has recently been developed, the American Council for School Social Work, which offers school-based social-work practitioners resources for educators and parents, recommended reading (through journals, articles, and books), and practice evaluation tools. Several regional councils also support school social work.

In addition, important journals supported by major organizations such as Children and Schools (NASW) and the School Social Work Journal (Lyceum Books) provide research, theoretical practice, and policy information.

Trends and Directions

New structures, new partners.

As we look into the future of school social work, concerns about the quality and cost of education, student learning outcomes, accountability, increased demand to serve more diverse student populations, and increased social problems among children and families will challenge the profession to think creatively and differently about their services and how to organize them for greater effectiveness and efficiency. Frey et al. ( 2012 ) proposed a national model for social work that considers social justice, an ecological perspective, ethical and legal policies, and a data-driven approach for the advancement of school social-work practice. What does this mean for school social-work services?

Although many school social workers are employed by local school districts, trends indicate that some school systems are implementing new organizational structures and creating new partnerships. Some districts are contracting with external mental-health service providers or other agencies in what they believe to be a cost-efficient way to serve their students. Schools have also formed relevant partnerships, termed school-linked or integrated services , with organizations such as health providers, which provide their services through the school system (Franklin, 2004 ).

Among its most pressing issues, this field of practice will be facing a myriad of changes and issues, including the following:

Increased global competition and educational excellence. School social workers will need to empirically demonstrate their contributions to the national focus on performance measures and standardized tests and warn the school system about misuse and problems facing vulnerable pupils. Specifically, as education reform has become a top political priority (The White House, 2009 ), there have been growing pressures for school social workers to tie interventions to specific learning outcomes (such as test scores, grades, and attendance).

Social, economic, and educational policy and its impact on education. School social workers must be knowledgeable of those policies, advocate for those that are just, and lobby for the elimination of those that are problematic. For example, the topics of violence and bullying have become substantial in the media. Although these topics are of great relevance, rates of school violence have declined steadily since the 1990s (Pitner, Astor & Benbenishty, 2014 ). Social workers should be knowledgeable about the literature associated with these important issues and should keep school administrators informed when political pressures call for radically changing a system that may already be working.

Technological advances. The gap between those who are technologically literate and those who are not will have an effect on poverty and unemployment rates. Working with other relevant school personnel, school social workers must also make others aware of these inequities.

Growing diversity and new immigrant populations. Multicultural competency, including knowledge about new immigrants, will challenge our public schools and consequently the profession. In response, school social workers will need to increase their knowledge to remain effective assessors, advisors, and advocates for these students.

The focus on evidence-based interventions and outcomes, particularly within the context of the three-tier model (Response to Intervention and Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports; Thompson, 2013 ). Practitioners will need to keep abreast of and incorporate evidence-based interventions, new problem-solving approaches, and innovative partnerships to address the needs of all students.

The American public-education system is subject to numerous criticisms and challenges. Yet it is has proven to be resilient and essential to the core values of our democracy. As adaptations or new innovations develop, the profession of social work must not only respond, but also be proactive in shaping the future. School social workers provide crucial social services in one of the most accessible settings, playing an integral role in prevention, intervention, and positive change for school-age children and their families.

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Smith College School for Social Work

History of the School

SSW alumni at President's Centennial Reception

Smith College created the School for Social Work in 1918 under the name Smith Psychiatric Training School. The school grew out of a summer program that prepared clinical social workers to address the burgeoning needs of World War I Veterans suffering from what was then called shell shock. With an incoming class of 60, the School grew quickly and was soon recognized as a leader in clinical social work. By the 1950s, the School had expanded its focus to include social work research, social welfare, interdisciplinary collaboration and international social work.

Today, SSW is recognized for its concentrated block curriculum and its focus on community-based clinical social work with unparalleled depth and rigor. Throughout the years, the nature of the coursework shifted alongside changing cultural, political and economic environments, but the School’s commitment to being a leader in clinical social work education has never wavered. Today, the Smith College School for Social Work is the premier clinical social work graduate school.

Early Years

In 1918, Smith founded the Smith Psychiatric Training School, pioneering efforts in trauma work with Veterans, and enabling young women to learn psychiatry when educating women in psychiatry was seen as too “radical.” The School earned its first accreditation from the Council on Social Work Education in 1919.

In 1930 the School held its first “Supervisor's Conference,” demonstrating from its earliest years a commitment to maintaining close working relationships with those who supervise students in their internships. That same year, SSW first published the widely respected professional journal of clinical social work, Smith College Studies in Social Work . In 1939, the School offered its first multicultural course, “Culture as a Determinant of Behavior,” taught by the noted social anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski of the University of London.

In 1943, the demands of World War II led the School to adjust its curriculum from 24 months to just 15 months—though the 24-month curriculum was reinstated in 1946. Two years later, it initiated the Program of Advanced Study, which eventually developed into the SCSSW PhD program .

Changing Tides

Throughout the 1950s, the School continued to take the lead in the social work community, expanding its program based on the shifting needs of a changing political climate.

While the School maintained its commitment to Veterans, the 1950s was marked by an increasing interest in interdisciplinary collaboration, the expansion of research as an area of focus in social work education, expanded social welfare curriculum offerings, and increasing interest in international social work, including the admittance of students from abroad. 

In concert with the Civil Rights Movement, SCSSW expanded its commitment to the issue of multicultural practice. Starting in the 1960s, coursework on socio-cultural, economic, and political environments was intensified. In addition, courses were added on group work, clinical social work and families, and issues of sexual orientation.

SCSSW School Today

Today, the School continues to be a leader in clinical social work education. In both the master’s and Ph.D. programs, students and instructional faculty come into residence on Smith’s campus for 10 weeks of coursework over three consecutive summers. Classroom learning, meals shared in the dining hall, attendance at lectures and student activities—on and off campus—all offer great opportunities for rich interaction between approximately 400 students and faculty. The tight-knit nature of the community is also welcoming to alumni, a significant percentage of whom participate in School events throughout the year.

Since 1931, the School has also offered a rich, active continuing education program for professionals around the country. The School offers two specialized certificate programs: Advanced Clinical Supervision and End-of-Life Care (co-sponsored with Baystate Health). 

Across the years, Smith’s dedication to teaching clinical social work practice has always begun with an appreciation for the complexity of human behavior and the interplay of psychological, developmental, social and cultural variables. We teach our students to approach clinical practice through a range of theories within these areas and current research, and with a deep appreciation of the relationship between the social worker and the client, not only in the delivery of services, but as a mechanism to promote healing and growth.

Explore the History of Our Smith SSW

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The Evolution of Social Work: Historical Milestones

Explore the history of social work through this interactive slideshow documenting some of the greatest milestones in the social services profession.

the history of school social work

Roots of Modern Social Work Image Source:   Boston Public Library  on Flickr

To compensate for ineffective government response to growing social problems, benevolent societies and self-help organizations took to addressing the consequences of urbanization, poverty, and immigration. Founded in 1843 and 1853 respectively, two such organizations were the Association for the Improvement of the Condition of the Poor and the Children’s Aid Society. They focused on addressing social issues such as child welfare and tenement housing.

the history of school social work

The Civil War Spurs Action Image Source:   Flickr Creative Commons

Based on the need created by the upheaval of the Civil War (1861-1865), major social welfare initiatives, such as the U.S. Sanitary Commission and the American Red Cross, emerged. Charity boards were created as a means to improve the management of social institutions. The first federal social welfare program, referred to as the Freedmen’s Bureau, began in 1865 as a means to help newly emancipated slaves. The program was short-lived; however, as a lack of funds and political pressure prevented it from carrying out its mission. Congress shut down the Freedmen’s Bureau in 1872.

the history of school social work

The Use of Scientific Charity Image Source:  Columbia University

In 1877, the first American Charity Organization Society attempted to respond to the social consequences of industrialization, with “scientific charity.” Using concepts from the business field, reformers attempted to regulate public relief distribution to minority immigrant communities who were a rapidly growing part of the labor force. However, most of the scientific charity relief efforts were not effective in part because many recipients preferred mutual aid established by their own communities.

the history of school social work

The Rise of Settlement Houses Image source:   The University of Illinois at Chicago

Settlement houses were created in response to some of the societal changes caused by industrial expansion. Settlement houses are neighborhood-based organizations that provide services specific to the needs of their neighborhoods — much like a community center. This new type of social service agency focused on correcting the environmental causes of poverty. Their activities included conducting research, establishing a juvenile court system, creating widows pension programs, promoting legislation, prohibiting child labor, and introducing public health reforms and the concept of social insurance. The first U.S. settlement, the Neighborhood Guild, began in New York City in 1886.

the history of school social work

Hull House: An American Institution Image Source:   Chicago History Museum

In 1889, Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr created The Hull House, the most famous American settlement house. Located in the midst of a culturally diverse neighborhood in Chicago, the Hull House welcomed anyone in need of assistance. The residents of Hull House offered public education programs to everyone in the community along with social services such as a public kitchen, access to public baths, and a nursery.

the history of school social work

Early Social Work Education Programs Are Born Image Source:   Simmons College

In the late 19th century, full programs dedicated social work education began to take shape. Among them, Columbia University partnered with The New York College of Science to develop and offer the first social work class. In 1904, Simmons College in Boston collaborated with Harvard University to establish the Boston School for Social Workers. Simmons was the first college to provide training for clinical social workers. By 1908, a full curriculum social work program was offered through the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy, which is now known as the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration.

the history of school social work

A High Profile Stumbling Block Image Source:   The Institute for Advanced Study

Despite increased training opportunities for social workers, there remained a lot of uncertainty about the future of the profession. In 1915, at the National Conference of Charities and Corrections, Dr. Abraham Flexner asserted that social work couldn’t be considered a true profession in his “Is Social Work a Profession?” presentation due to it’s lack of specificity, specialized skills, and knowledge.

the history of school social work

Social Work Education Programs Take Hold Image Source:   Intro to Creative Writing

Formal social work training programs spread through major urban areas in the early 20th century. By 1919, there were 17 schools of social work affiliated with the Association of Training Schools of Professional Social Work before it became the Council on Social Work Education.

the history of school social work

World War I Requires Expertise Image Source:  Crowd Funding Guide (site no longer exists)

The Red Cross and the Army requested social workers to apply casework skills to treat soldiers for “shell shock” in World War I (1914-1928). This marked the first time social workers were called upon to treat social issues that weren’t limited to poverty.

the history of school social work

The Field Takes a Leap Forward Image Source:   United Way

In the early 19th century, social workers began to work in conjunction with psychiatrists and psychologists. These cooperative efforts helped to spark legitimization of the field, and by 1927 more than 100 child guidance clinics were opened to provide services primarily to middle-class clients. In addition to these clinics, the Community Chest movement began in 1913. A precursor of the United Way and its health and welfare councils, Community Chest organizations raised money from businesses to fund community projects.

the history of school social work

Government Responds to the Great Depression Image Source:   Kevin Burkett  on Flickr

The stock market crash in October 1929 signaled the start of a depression that would last for a decade. The Great Depression (1929-1939) created a shift in the belief that social welfare was a government responsibility versus a private charitable responsibility. Economic decline highlighted the insufficiency of local and state public relief agencies and ultimately, it revolutionized the role the federal government played in social welfare efforts.

the history of school social work

The New Deal Expands Assistance Image Source:   Athena International Recruitment

Government programs began evolving under the Roosevelt administration. The New Deal (1933-1936) led to dozens of social welfare acts including the Social Security Act of 1935. Social welfare programs expanded to include housing, recreation, cultural activities, social insurance, and child welfare programs.

the history of school social work

WWII Requires Military Social Workers Image Source:   University of Cincinnati

Many social workers were given war-related assignments during World War II (1939-1945) to develop services for communities impacted by the war. Social workers on these assignments helped soldiers and their families cope with injuries and other medical problems. A special classification for military social workers was developed from this work.

the history of school social work

Consolidation Improves Professional Outlook Image Source:  Council on Social Work Education

Following the end of World War II, efforts were made to enhance the professional status of social work. The Council on Social Work Education was formed in 1952. The National Association of Social Workers was created in 1955 to further the professional status of social work. Various social work groups and organizations that had already been established throughout the country consolidated to form this new association. Simmons School of Social Work alumnus Dr. Helen Rehr was one of the NASW’s National Center for Social Policy and Practice’s founding members and served as its first treasurer.

the history of school social work

Waging the ‘War on Poverty’ Image source:   James Vaughan  on Flickr

President Johnson announced a launch of an “unconditional war on poverty” in January 1964. With this declaration, the recognition of poverty as a social problem took hold. As a result of the attention, government programs aimed at social advancement were established: Economic Opportunity Act, Office of Economic Opportunity, Medicare, Medicaid, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Older American Act, and the Food Stamps program to name a few.

the history of school social work

The Federal Government Shifts Course Image Source:   Flickr Creative Commons

In the 1970s, a belief that the influx of social programs in the U.S. had created social unrest took hold, and social reform began to stagnate. Starting with with the Nixon Administration, the federal government pulled back on the social reform of the previous decades. However, there were still positive changes in the field during the 1970s. Universities and colleges established the BSW — Bachelor of Social Work— as an entry-level degree program and created joint degrees with other public policy sectors. The privatization of social work practices also grew, giving social workers greater autonomy and legitimacy.

the history of school social work

Programs Scaled Back, Cut Image source:   Brett Tatman  on Flickr

Many federal programs were reduced or eliminated during the Reagan administration in the 1980s. These cutbacks in government agencies resulted in social workers relying heavily on private-sector solutions for social welfare problems. Social workers also faced new challenges: the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the crack cocaine epidemic, homelessness, and domestic violence.

the history of school social work

Emphasis Placed on Non-Government Options Image Source:   Tim Hamilton on Flickr

In light of the stagnation and lack of federal programs from previous administrations, the Clinton administration placed greater pressure on nonprofits to fill gaps in service provision. In 1996, the controversial welfare reform bill known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families was passed. It placed time limits and conditions on cash assistance from the federal government. During this decade, schools of social work received increased funding for research and evaluation activities in areas such as domestic violence, child welfare, mental health, and aging.

the history of school social work

Social Work in the 21st Century Image Source:   Thinkstock

By the early 2000s, social workers made up the largest percentage of professionals working in the mental health and family services fields. These professionals were ready with treatment options for those affected by events such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the recession that began in 2008. The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act was passed in 2008 to require insurance coverage for mental health services at the same level of coverage for physical health issues, making mental health and substance abuse services more affordable for many people. New technology like social media allows social workers to begin addressing global issues more effectively.

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History of Social Work Education and the Profession’s Structure

The history of social work education and the profession’s structure, by harris chaiklin, ph.d. , professor emeritus, university of maryland school of social work.

An examination of the profession’s history, especially the development of education can help in understanding current issues related to its unity and what is the most appropriate role for the social worker. It won’t solve them, that will take a strong resolve by the current profession. Shoemaker and Leighninger have made important contributions toward this understanding (Leighninger 1986, Shoemaker 1998).

Shoemaker focuses on three early schools. The first is what became the New York School of Social Work. The second is what became the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration. And the third is what became the Boston University School of Social Work.

In 1896-1897 Philip A. Ayres assistant Secretary of the New York Charity Organization Society gave a six week course called “Summer School in Philanthropic Work.” This was an intensive experience culminating in the requirement that a publishable article be submitted.

Ayers had been a student in the Department of Local Government and Public Administration at Johns Hopkins University. (Gilman 1894)Before coming to New York he had headed the Baltimore COS executive committee and was president of the Baltimore City Department of Charities and Corrections. He headed the Associated Charities in Cincinnati and Chicago. In 1904 the New York COS initiated a year program under the direction of Edward Devine called the New York School of Philanthropy.

In 1903 Graham Taylor founded The Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy. He was a social gospel minister who directed the Chicago Commons Settlement House. In 1904 Harvard University and Simmons Female College along with Robert Woods head of the Boston Associated Charities founded the Boston School for Training Social Workers. It was directed by Jeffrey Brackett. He was another student in the Hopkins program in local government and public administration and had been an active volunteer in the COS. He was a believer in the scientific approach. Brackett became head of the Boston School for Training Social Workers which later became the Simmons College School of Social Work.

All these schools started about the same time. Initially there was little formal course structure and students were exposed to a wide variety of opinions about every aspect of practice and policy. Each of the three schools engaged in a different conflict over the nature of social work education and the profession. Shoemaker highlights this with a discussion of three issues about what social work education and practice would be like.

The first is that in 1912 Samuel McCuan Lindsay resigned from the New York School directorship over disagreements about social work’s knowledge base and tension between advocates of university based and agency based education. Lindsay was a proponent of strong social science and policy based courses. John Glenn the director of the Russell Sage Foundation questioned that orientation saying that what workers needed was skill in working with people. He probably had the support or encouragement of Mary Richmond at that time was director of Sage’s Charity Organization Department at that time had expressed strong reservations about university academic affiliation even though she wanted high practice standards. After this the New York School, led chiefly by Porter Lee , focused on client oriented casework. Lindsay saw the explanation of social problems as located in the social structure, Lee in the individual. The dispute over these orientations continues in social work (Costin 1983).

The second issue is that after 12 years of affiliation in 1916 Harvard withdrew from the Boston School in a dispute over the proper role for women in social work. Some of this was related to the academic apprenticeship dispute. Another and major issue was that Simmons and the Boston Associated Charities saw social work as a natural extension of women’s traditional roles. It was something men were not seen as suited for. Harvard wanted no part of this and Simmons became a traditional casework school.

Another element is this is that Cabot, a physician, then established a social work department at McClean. He also headed a department of Social Ethics which prepared male Harvard students to be researchers, reformers and agency executives. Tension over gender roles persist within the profession.

And the third is that in 1920 Edith Abbott and Sophinisba Breckenridge got control of the Chicago School away from Graham Taylor and affiliated with the University of Chicago in what was now the School of Social Service Administration. Abbott and Breckenridge wanted social workers to be administrators and policy leaders. Neither could get a job in the University of Chicago sociology department so they built their own school and thus helped ensure that the conflict about the social worker role would continue to this day. Even though they developed a casework curriculum their focus was still on the social structure and changing it as a way to ameliorate problems.

Leighninger in her analysis of the differences between Abbot and Reynolds says that the profession still has not come to peace with a definition of the social work role that unifies it. Abbott had a PhD in economics and was an excellent researcher. She saw social change as coming through research and knowing how to influence policy. Leighninger (p.112) says, “This image of professionalism followed the traditional models of medicine and law. It stressed a scientific base for practice, restrictive standards for entry into the profession, and a consultative role in the development of social policy”

Reynolds was equally intellectually able but she followed a psychologically oriented casework track spending many years at Smith College School for Social Work. What makes a comparison between Abbott and Reynolds interesting is that as her career moved on she adopted a radical politics that saw change as necessary in the social structure. She never abandoned casework. She wanted to reconcile Marx and Freud. At the same time she regularly attended church all her life. Her politics led to her being forced to leave Smith. She had difficulty locating a job. The Red Cross turned her down. Eventually she started a casework service at the National Maritime Union and did this until WWII ended.

It is difficult to pin one label on Reynolds. She agreed with Abbott that the profession she be based on scientific knowledge and that the whole profession should be involved in restructuring society. They also agreed that women had a tough time finding appropriate professional positions. She differed from Abbott in that she was a strong supporter of unions and wanted a broad profession that included people without a lot of professional education. The science they focused on differed. Abbott was concerned with designing and delivering social services. Reynolds stayed concerned with human development and her radical politics were directed toward this end. One thing about Reynolds is that because of her politics the community organization wing of the profession has tended to honor her and forget her emphasis on casework. Leighninger (p. 116) sums this up by saying, “The differences between Abbott and Reynolds’ version of a science for social work can be viewed as reflecting the split between policy analyst and direct practitioner. Each chose the science appropriate to her practice.”

Their differing politics helps clarify the differences between Abbott and Reynolds. Abbott was a Republican. She wanted to build a scientific professional public welfare within our existing social system. While she felt social workers should work for change she did not think partisan politics was the way to go and was against professional associations supporting political parties. Reynolds on the other hand saw social work and people engaged in a struggle for survival and wanted social workers to take action through the labor movement. These issues are still not resolved within the profession.

Costin, L. B. (1983). “Edith Abbott and the Chicago influence on social work.” Social Service Review 57(1): 94-111.

Gilman, D. C. (1894). A panorama of charitable work in many lands: being a review of the papers submitted to the International Congress in Chicago, June, 1893. Being a report of the Sixth Section of the International Conference of Charities, Corrections and Philanthropy, June 1893. D. C. Gilman. Baltmore, The Johns Jopkins Press: viii-xviii.

Leighninger, L. (1986). “Bertha Reynolds and Edith Abbott: contrasting images of professionalism in social work ” Smith College Studies In Social Work in Social Work 56(2): 111-121.

Shoemaker, L. M. (1998). “Early conflicts in social work education.” Social Service Review 72(2): 182-191.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format):  Chaiklin, H. (2013). The history of social work education and the profession’s structure. Social Welfare History Project.  Retrieved from

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Faculty photo from 1950s

See the School of Social Work interactive timeline  »

The School of Social Work was formed in 1918 as a division of the Pitt School of Economics' Department of Sociology. As part of the required accreditation process at the time, course work was offered to a cohort of students for one year before the program was first officially accredited in 1919 by the American Association of Schools of Professional Social Work (AASPSW). AASPSW was a predecessor of the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), the current accreditor of academic social work programs. Early curricular emphases were child welfare, mental health and community building. Seventeen faculty members offered 19 courses. In 1922, the University withdrew its social work program from the AASPSW. Though social work courses continued to be offered, the formal social work program was disbanded. 

In 1926,  Manuel Conrad Elmer  was recruited from the University of Minnesota as chair of Pitt's Department of Sociology. Elmer, who in 1914 received one of the first doctorates in sociology from the University of Chicago, was instrumental in building and developing the sociology department here. (He published his last book at age 101 in 1987.) Elmer was also committed to rebuilding the Pitt social work program.

In 1928, course listings in social work reappeared. In 1931, the Division of Social Work was created as a separate unit within the Department of Sociology. Students in that era earned a Master of Arts in Social Work. Also in 1931, the Division of Social Work established an Agency Advisory Committee, an Agency Advisory Committee for Group Work, an Agency Advisory Committee for Medical Social Work, and an Agency Advisory Committee for Policy Studies. In 1932, the University began the process of having its accreditation reinstated by the AASPSW, a request made formally in January 1933.

Marion Hathway  was recruited by Elmer in July 1933 from the University of Chicago as an assistant professor. Hathway’s responsibilities were to direct the social work program, obtain accreditation for the program and build toward the establishment of a School of Social Work separate from the Department or Sociology. In 1934, Hathway was given the title “Assistant Director of the Division of Social Work.” Also in 1934, the AASPSW approved the University’s application for full membership.  At that time, the program had an unduplicated enrollment of 252 students. In 1937, AASPSW granted Pitt full accreditation of its social work program retroactively to 1934.

Pitt created the School of Applied Social Sciences as the University’s 18th school in 1938. (Currently the University includes 13 colleges and schools, following a number of consolidations.)  Wilbur I. Newstetter became the new school’s first dean in 1938 and served until 1962. Historically, the social work program has had several designations:  Division of Social Work (1918-1922), Division of Social Work in the Department of Sociology (1931-1938), School of Applied Social Sciences (1938-1947), School of Social Work (194171957), Graduate School of Social Work (1957-1971) and School of Social Work (1971 to the present). For the remainder of this history, the social work program will be referred to as “the school.”

During the 1930s and 1940s, the school’s curriculum embraced the traditional social casework course of studies, but began immediately to create curriculum, deliver papers in such forums as the National Council of Social Work and publish articles and text books in social group work and community organization (initially called “intergroup work”) by Dean W. I. Newstetter, a major contributor to the formation of this field of specialization in social work.  [1][2][3][4][5][6][7]

COSA photo from 1980s

Read a history of the community organizing program »

Also during the 1940s, Hathway spearheaded the creation of a doctoral program, secured University approval and became the program’s first director in 1945. During the 1940s, a debate emerged in social work education between scholars and practitioners of two schools of thought: the diagnostic approach, based in part on the work of Sigmund Freud, and the functional approach based in part on the work of Otto Rank. Pitt's social work school was divided on this issue, with nationally recognized proponents on both sides. Eventually, when social casework faculty member Ruth Smalley completed her Doctor of Social Work in 1949, she left the Pittsburgh faculty to join the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, a primarily Rankian school. Pittsburgh remained strongly in the diagnostic camp thereafter.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the school continued to expand enrollment, develop the major curricular emphases of the Master of Social Work (MSW) program (social casework, social group work and community organization), and build the doctoral program which became a Doctor of Philosophy program.  Heavy emphasis in the master’s program was given to child welfare, medical social work, mental health and school social work. In addition, an MSW major in research was added and a variety of joint degree programs were established. At the MSW level, these included one of the oldest joint Master of Social Work/Master of Divinity degree programs in the nation (still thriving); Master of Social Work/ Master of Jewish Communal Services; Master of Social Work/Master of Public Administration; Master of Social Work/Master of Public Health; and Master of Social Work/Juris Doctor. In addition, a joint Master of Public Health and Doctor of Philosophy was implemented.

The 1970s was another period of rapid growth in enrollment and major curricular developments. In 1973, the school abandoned the traditional social casework, social group work, community organization framework and adopted an integrated academic paradigm. This new design identified four major areas (concentrations) of study: Children, Youth and Families; Health and Mental Health; Poverty and Associated Problems; and Juvenile and Criminal Justice. Within each of these, students also selected a specialization from among Interpersonal Skills; Organization and Planning; Administration and Policy; and Research.

In 1969, a commission chaired by Pitt Professor Erma Myerson and financed by the Heinz Endowments of Pittsburgh completed a study of the future of undergraduate social work education for the Council on Social Work. The report of this commission paved the way for accredited undergraduate social work education. However, it was not until 1973 that Pitt launched its own bachelor’s program in social work. 

Expansion of curriculum, enrollment, faculty, research and publications characterized the next 25 to 30 years. Child welfare, mental health and gerontology were the beneficiaries of extensive external support and extended their reach state-wide, nationally and internationally.

In the decade beginning about 2001, a major investment was made in the development of a University  Center on Race and Social Problems  in the School by Dean Larry Davis .  This Center was created to foster multidisciplinary research on race related social issues, mentor scholars whose research focuses on race as a defining social problem in America, and to disseminate race related knowledge.  The Center focuses on race related social problems in criminal justice, economic disparities, educational disparities, health, interracial group relations, mental health, and youth families and the elderly.  As parts of its work, the Center publishes the professional  Journal Race and Social Problems .

The book Helpers, Healers, and Heroes, a history of African Americans at the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work is available to read online .

Helpers, Healers, and Heroes book cover

In 2018, the School celebrated its 100th anniversary with a Centennial Celebration and Alumni Reunion . 

100th graduating class

[1] Newstetter, Wilber I. (1936).  Community Organization Work and other Special Services.   Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh.  University of Pittsburgh Archives, Wilber I. Newstetter collection, Box 2.

[2] Newstetter, Wilber I.  (1941).  Teaching Community Organization in Schools of Social Work.  Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh.  University of Pittsburgh Archives.  Wilber I. Newstetter collection, Box 14.

[3] Newstetter, Wilber I.  1947.  The Social Intergroup Work Process.  Proceedings of the National Conference of Social Work.  New York: Columbia University Press, 205-217.

[4] Newstetter, Wilber I. (1935). What is Social Group Work?  Proceedings of the National  Conference of Social Work.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 291-299.

[5] Newstetter, Wilber I.  (1936).  The Group Work Field.  Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh.  University of Pittsburgh Archives.  Wilber I Newstetter collection, Box 2.

[6]  Wilson, Gertrude .  (1938). The Interplay of the Insights of Casework and Group Work.  Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh.

[7]  Wilson, Gertrude  and Ryland, Gladys. (1949). Social Group Work Practice: The Creative Use of the Social Process.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin, Company.

[8] Kasius, Cora, Editor.  A Comparison of Diagnostic and Functional Casework Concepts . New York: Family Service Association of America, 1950.


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