In the profession of social work, school social work as a specialty practice has evolved over more than a century and has provided important and valuable contributions to public school settings. From the broadest perspective, the expectations for school social workers typically focus on case management and clinical intervention for children and families framed within a therapeutic mental health lens to ameliorate effects of trauma and to provide social-emotional supports (Berzin & O'Connor, 2010; Costin, 1975; Frey & Dupper, 2005; Kelly, Berzin, et al., 2010; Kelly, Frey, & Anderson-Butcher, 2010; O'Brien et al., 2011). However, although the National Association of Social Workers (NASW; 2012) crafted a set of school social work standards, the roles and responsibilities of school social workers vary distinctly from school district to school district and from state to state, making it virtually impossible to maintain uniformity in practice (Altshuler & Webb, 2009; Corbin, 2005; Garrett, 2006; Kelly et al., 2010; Phillippo, 2011; Sherman, 2016).
Because school social work practice occurs in a host setting, surrounded by the bureaucratic structure of the education system, pressures to conform to education policy, often even at the district level, contribute to a struggle for professional legitimacy (Altshuler & Webb, 2009; Corbin, 2005; Garrett, 2006; Phillippo, 2011; Richard & Villarreal-Sosa, 2014). School social work practice varies widely, making it imperative that school social workers define roles and provide services that promote the visibility, viability, and value of the profession (Berzin & O'Connor, 2010; Goren, 2016; Sherman, 2016). However, the realities of educational bureaucracy, geographic location, varying student ages and needs, funding, professional education, and territorial disputes with other education professions, such as school psychology and school counseling, have often resulted in school social workers bending and shifting their practices to fit the unique needs of their districts and schools, making it difficult to achieve consistency in the profession (Agresta, 2004; Lee, 1983; O'Brien et al., 2011; Teasley, Canfield, Archuleta, Crutchfield, & Chavis, 2012).
Although there is an established body of research related to school social work practice, studies have often focused upon the efficacy of specific clinical interventions related to topics of crisis intervention, behavior management, or trauma (Allen-Meares, 2013; Berzin & O'Connor, 2010). Furthermore, conceptual research that examines the need for school social work to evolve from direct practice to more sustainable system-wide practice is not necessarily evidenced in the actual daily work of school social workers due to a lack of data (Kelly et al., 2016). As one example, research in school social work has long emphasized the need for school social workers to establish consistency in practice by working within the positive behavior support (PBS) and response to intervention (RTI) educational frameworks to provide services that fall on a continuum of tier 1 (school-wide), tier 2 (class-wide), and tier 3 (individual) interventions (Corbin, 2005; Frey et al., 2012; Kelly, Frey, et al., 2010; Phillippo, 2011). Although school social work is relatively consistent in terms of service delivery at the tier 3 level, increased emphasis on utilizing consultative approaches to target group and school-wide settings would not only enhance the role of the school social worker but would also promote greater system-level change (Costin, 19 75; Frey & Dupper, 2005; Lynn, McKay, & Atkins, 2003; Phillippo & Blosser, 2013).
This research highlights the need for school social workers to engage in evidence-based practice and to utilize data to inform decision making about their practices and activities on all three tiers (Kelly, Frey, et al., 2010). Although conceptual research makes compelling arguments for consistent practice in the profession, the reality is that very little self-recorded data exist regarding the daily practices of school social workers, making it difficult to know how or if the profession can become more cohesive, effective, and consistent through these measures.
Several state and nationwide studies, performed through survey research, have provided a glimpse into the perceptions and activities of school social workers. These studies indicate that school social workers self-report wide variations of duties, disenfranchisement from policy and programmatic activities, and entanglements with professional territorialism that complicate opportunities for meso-macro level system change (Kelly, Berzin, et al., 2010; Kelly et al., 2016). Likewise, school social workers acknowledge a lack of knowledge about data collection and/or a reluctance to engage in data collection and system-level change due to time constraints, lack of professional preparation, and pressure to work individually with students in crisis (Kelly, Berzin, et al., 2010; Kelly et al., 2016). Although the information gleaned from these types of survey research methods has utility and merit, there is a lack of empirical research that measures the actual daily practices of school social workers.
The purpose of this study was to examine what school social workers are doing in the field juxtaposed against theoretical and conceptual constructs of what the literature says they should be doing. The intent of this exploratory research was to track the activities of school social workers utilizing an electronic data collection system to gage how their activities fit within the scope of previous conceptual and survey research. Furthermore, the authors were interested in examining the school social workers' perceptions of this type of data collection and its utility in informing their future professional practices to promote the visibility, viability, and value of the profession.
This study took place during the 2014-2015 academic year in a Midwestern urban city with a population of 127,215. Within the city, the school district consisted of 13,800 students. Demographically, the student body was 41 percent Caucasian, 29 percent Latino, 19 percent African American, 1 percent Native American, and 10 percent other. Seventy-seven percent of students in this district were entitled to free/reduced lunches, and the district had a special education rate of 24 percent. The district comprised five high schools (including two alternative schools) for grades nine through twelve, seven middle schools (including one alternative school) for grades six through eight, and eighteen elementary schools (including one alternative school) for grades kindergarten through five.
The participants in this study included twenty-five special education school social workers, three males and twenty-two females, hired within the district. Of these social workers, 80 percent were Caucasian, 10 percent Latino, and 10 percent African American. The district maintained a school social work coordinator who provided oversight to all twenty-five social workers in terms of workload distribution, professional development, and supervision and was instrumental in soliciting the participation of all school social workers for this study.
Prior to implementation of this study, school social workers were expected to maintain daily written case logs of their activities to submit monthly to the school social work coordinator. However, there was little consistency in terms of how activities were defined and logged. Because of these reliability and validity issues, along with the difficulty of deciphering handwritten case logs, the school social work coordinator was not able to assess or analyze the data in a meaningful fashion. Thus, the school social work coordinator, in tandem with the authors, determined that an electronic data collection system would be developed and piloted for a year prior to implementation in the hope that a new systematic approach to measuring the activities of the school social workers would produce more reliable and valid data about their...