BACK IN THE ICONOCLASTIC '60s, a time when baby boomers were coming of age, schools of social work attracted starry-eyed social activists looking to hook their star to a worthy cause.
Fast forward to the new millennium and sure enough, history has a way of repeating itself for the next generation of social workers. Still driven by a search for social justice and community empowerment, today's social work faculty and students represent a new generation of social activists and scholar practitioners who are both doing good and doing well.
What is different about the new social work mega trend is that the profession is attracting baby boomers looking for legacies in their lives' work, having achieved the traditional trappings of professional and business career recognition, material wealth acquisition, and all of the usual toys they can fi t in their three-car garages.
Recent data from the Council on Social Work Education (www.cswe.org) indicates that, nationwide, almost one in three social work students is over the age of 30, and nearly half of part-time students are mid-career adults. Significantly, over the last several years there has been a surge in the number of students in their 40s and 50s attending schools of social work. Many of these reinvigorated, idealistic and, yes, older students are attracted by the opportunity to tackle leadership roles within their communities where they will live and work after graduation.
Stefan Krug, dean of the Simmons College School of Social Work in Boston, notes that his school is riding this growing wave of people who are realizing it just may, in fact, be better to give than to receive. "We find that our social work graduate students are increasingly motivated by the midlife recognition that they have an opportunity to return to college, make a transformational career change, and still enjoy 10 to 15 years of active career development in a field where they can make a demonstrable impact and where their core values of social responsibility and civic engagement can inform their social work in the community."
Increasingly, younger students are eager to dive into the fray and improve the lives of others who are in less fortunate socioeconomic circumstances. More of them are going straight from college to advanced degree programs in social work, rather than working for a few years first as they had in the past.
That said, there's now a "new world order" for social workers. As Krug suggests, "Social work must increase its focus on outcomes, promote a more evidence-based practice, help students integrate information from other relevant disciplines, and expand social work's reach internationally." These older students and their younger colleagues are going to be in high demand when they graduate. Indeed, the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics expects the social work career field to grow 30 percent by 2010.
Marilyn Flynn, dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Southern California, adds, "Never have we needed more educated, principled, and resourceful leaders who can anticipate emerging issues and lead social work innovation at the local, national, and global levels."
As a result, many social work schools have retooled their curricula to prepare their students to deal with the increased pressure from their future clients and from the people paying social service agencies to deliver results. Courses at the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland have what could be seen as mind-numbingly dull names like "Attracting Government, Foundation, and Corporate Support" and "Budgeting and Financial Management in Social Service" to address this changing landscape. It is these and other practical skills courses that bring home the essential need for social service managers to be accountable for the resources with which they are entrusted.
Grover Gilmore, dean of the Mandel School, notes, "We tackled this issue of accountability head-on several years ago" when the Mandel School turned its focus inward and developed an innovative student outcomes assessment system referred to as the Ability-Based Learning Environment. By closely linking theory and field work, Mandel's approach lays the foundation for its students to embark on a real world career of "doing good and doing well" by identifying the critical skills and best practices necessary for competent professional practice.
This approach is being taken beyond Mandel by the social work profession and social work education, which are embracing "evidence-based" or "evidence-informed" practice. As Barbara W. White, dean of The University of Texas at Austin's School of Social Work, explains, "It is the goal of our profession to affect lives for the better throughout the world." UT recently demonstrated its commitment to evidence based practice when it hosted a national symposium with more than a dozen scholars discussing how to improve teaching in this area.
Jack Richman, dean of the School of Social Work at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, agrees that students need the ability to interpret research and apply it in the field. In retrospect, many human services agencies launched new programs that "felt good," only to later find out they didn't work. No longer will funders tolerate social workers who do "good" without doing well. Richman adds, "We teach our students to ask what the research shows. We educate them in how to search the literature and then find out what really works."
At the end of the day, the next generation of social workers must also master an ever expanding knowledge base in emerging fields, such as neurobiology and genetics. As an example, USC now offers a concentration in health that enables graduates to recognize the role of biological, psychological, and cultural factors as they affect health, illness, and disability across the lifespan. Another case in point: Simmons College's School of Social Work offers a health-practice course that includes content on interdisciplinary collaboration in areas such as genetic counseling, oncology, and fertility.
In today's global environment, pressure is mounting to address growing concerns around international human rights and worldwide social justice issues that implicate a social action framework for social work practice here and abroad. Today U.S.-based social work students and faculty study and work on the front lines in places such as Tanzania, Ghana, Sudan, and Romania, tackling issues such as nutrition, early childhood development, and the AIDS epidemic.
While history often repeats itself, the underlying impetus that steers young -- and increasingly not so young -- students toward careers in social work has not changed radically over time. These dedicated students are motivated by a genuine desire to serve the common good of society. For contemporary schools of social work, what this ultimately means is a felt need to be nimble ? to adapt curricula to fast-changing demographics, multiculturalism, and a new dynamic tension between “doing good and doing well.”
James Martin is a professor at Mount Ida College (Mass.). James E. Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance. Their book is Presidential Transition in Higher Education: Managing Leadership Change (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004).