The Professional Legitimation of Early School Social Work: A Historical Analysis.

Author:Sugrue, Erin P.

School social work practice began in 1906 in four cities: Boston; New York; Chicago; and Hartford, Connecticut (Constable, 2016). In the 110 years since the first school social workers (then referred to as visiting teachers) began their work, one constant has been that these social workers practice in a host setting--the school. The term host setting refers to "arenas in which social workers practice that are defined and dominated by people who are not social workers" (Dane & Simon, 1991, p. 208). Dane and Simon identified numerous challenges that face social workers in host settings, including differences in values between social workers and other staff, marginalization of social workers, and role ambiguity. Present-day school social work practitioners and researchers have frequently written about the challenges of practicing in the school host setting and its impacts on the establishment of professional legitimacy for school social workers (Altshuler & Webb, 2009; Frey et al., 2012; Goren, 1981). The purpose of this article is to build on the existing scholarship about the challenges facing school social work practice through a historical examination of how school social workers sought professional status in the second decade of the field's existence (1916-1929).

Historical Context

In their book on the development of the social work profession, From Charity to Enterprise: The Development of American Social Work in a Market Economy, Wenocur and Reisch (1989) referred to the post-Progressive era prior to the New Deal (between 1916 and 1929) as the New Era. This period was characterized by massive industrial change, the results of which included an extremely uneven distribution of wealth and high incidence of poverty (Trattner, 1999). Immigration rates were high during the New Era, and the arrival of many non-Anglo-Saxon immigrants was met with increased concern regarding their ability to successfully assimilate into "American" culture and anxiety over the potential that these "dangerous" immigrants would bring more radical political activity and labor strife to American society (Trattner, 1999; Wenocur & Reisch, 1989). Much of the responsibility for responding to these rapid social and economic changes was assigned to the relatively young fields of public education and social work (Phillippo & Blosser, 2013). As the passage of state-level compulsory attendance laws throughout the early 1900s brought more low-income and immigrant children into the public schools, schools were expected to "smooth societal transitions... by socializing individuals and promoting literacy" (Phillippo & Blosser, 2013, p. 22). However, many schools struggled to educate their new culturally, linguistically, and economically diverse populations; the addition of social workers (referred to as visiting teachers) to the school settings was an attempt to respond to this challenge (Phillippo & Blosser, 2013).

The creation of a new position within the education system--the visiting teacher--naturally led to discussions of role definition, boundaries, functions, and training, but professional identity was already a central issue within the larger field of social work in the first decades of the twentieth century (Flexner, 1915; Lubove, 1965; Tice, 1998; Wenocur & Reisch, 1989). Social work as a field developed in part out of a desire by educated middle-class women to engage in professional public work while also subscribing to the Victorian gender norms of women as caretakers (Abbott & Wallace, 1998; Muncy, 1991). In the early decades of the twentieth century, social work was succeeding as a field in which women had access to paid intellectually skilled work and in some cases were able to occupy leadership positions (Kunzel, 1995; Muncy, 1991). However, to maintain legitimacy and influence, social work needed to be established as an independent professional discipline with claims to clearly defined knowledge and skills (Muncy, 1991; Tice, 1998; Wenocur & Reisch, 1989). The quest for the professionalization of social work was complicated by the lack of a clear definition of the field (Flexner, 1915; Lubove, 1965; Wenocur & Reisch, 1989). It included a broad set of skills and strategies that operated in a wide variety of social contexts and competing ideologies and belief systems, including the more community-based social reform associated with the settlement house movement, Mary Richmond's social diagnostic casework, and the burgeoning fields of mental hygiene and psychiatry (Field, 1980; Phillippo & Blosser, 2013; Specht & Courtney, 1994; Tice, 1998; Wenocur & Reisch, 1989).

School social work faced the same challenges in professionalization as social work as a whole, and these challenges were often compounded by the specialized nature of the school host setting. This article will discuss how school social workers from the end of the Progressive Era through the 1920s defined themselves and their profession, how they made a case for their presence in the schools, and how they responded to the challenges that they faced in their attempts to carve out a new unique professional identity in an established host setting. The analysis will also examine how school social workers' identities as professionals changed over time to reflect social work's move away from its roots in the settlement house movement and the increasing influence of the psychiatric and medical hygiene perspectives.

Methods and Data Sources

The years between 1916 and 1929 were chosen for this analysis because this was a period of significant development and expansion for visiting teachers. In 1916, Jane Culbert (one of the leaders of early school social work) gave a lecture, "Visiting Teachers and Their Activities," at the National Conference on Charities and Correction (Culbert, 1916). This was one of the first attempts to promote a definition of school social work and it also served to bring national attention to the field among the social work community, a first step in the process of professionalization. By 1918 all U.S. states had passed compulsory attendance laws, resulting in an increase in school districts seeking assistance for students who were truant or experiencing other school difficulties, which led to the proliferation of school social workers in schools nationwide (Shaffer, 2006). The National Association of Visiting Teachers (NAVT) held its first meeting in 1920, another key step in an effort toward professional legitimation. The year 1929 is an appropriate end point for this study for two primary reasons:

  1. The Milford Conference report from the American Association of Social Workers outlined the future direction of social work practice and theory, including a variety of host settings, thus signifying a shift in which practice in host settings became more clearly defined and legitimized at least within the formal national social work organization.

  2. The stock market crash of October 1929 and the beginning of the Great Depression had significant impacts on the social work profession across settings.

In order to answer the questions that guided this research, the primary documents used in this article are those written by visiting teachers themselves or by leaders of either of the national professional organizations (the National Committee on Visiting Teachers [NCVT] or the NAVT) that were aimed at communicating among visiting teachers about the profession or created as publicity to promote the profession to school districts and philanthropic groups. Using documents in which visiting teachers communicated with each other about their struggles in establishing their identity and with potential funders and with supporters about the necessity and value of their existence as a profession allowed for a rich exploration of the process of professionalization by those who were directly involved.

The University of Minnesota's Social Welfare History Archives contain official minutes from a meeting of the NCVT that was held in conjunction with the National Council of Social Workers Annual Conference in 1926 (NCVT, 1926). The NCVT was established in 1921 by the Public Education Association of the City of New York to select and place visiting teachers in thirty demonstration cities as part of the five-year Program for the Prevention of Delinquency, initiated by the Commonwealth Fund, a prominent philanthropic foundation (McCullagh, 2004). In addition to information available in the Social Welfare History Archives at the University of Minnesota, numerous primary sources were located on the School Social Work History website ( This website, maintained by Randy Fisher, a founding member and former executive director of the School Social Work Association of America (SSWAA) and a scholar of school social work history, contains a large collection of primary source documents related to school social work from the early 1900s until the present day. This site contains Jane Culbert's seminal 1916 talk on visiting teachers as well as other primary source documents prior to 1920 such as two articles in the Proceedings of the 1917 Annual Conference of the National Education Association (Hodge, 1917; Johnson, 1917) and two articles from the Chicago Women's Club Bulletins of 1918 (Buckingham, 1918; Fyffe, 1918) (the Chicago Women's Club sponsored a visiting teacher in the Chicago Public Schools at that time). Particularly important sources for the research questions were the copies of the NAVT Bulletins. The NAVT began publishing bulletins around four times a year beginning in December 1924. The School Social Work History website posted eighteen bulletins, published from December 1924 to November 1929. These bulletins were compiled, alternately by month, by the local visiting teacher committees in different cities or by the NAVT executive committee or staff. They contained articles written by individual visiting teachers, often...

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