THE 2008 EDUCATIONAL POLICY and Accreditation Standards of the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) identifies policy practice as a core competency for social work students. It calls on schools of social work to train students to "analyze, formulate, and advocate for policies that advance social well-being" (CSWE, 2008, p. 6). Social workers are also mandated, through the profession's Code of Ethics, to challenge social injustice and pursue social change with and on behalf of vulnerable and oppressed individuals and groups of people (National Association of Social Workers [NASW], 1999).
Policy practice and policy advocacy have been identified as prime methods of promoting social justice and engaging social workers in our social reform tradition (Jansson, 2008). Weiss, Gal, and Katan (2006) argue that training in policy practice in schools of social work is minimal, thus practitioners lack the tools needed to intervene in the policy process. These authors cite as major obstacles a chronic lack of teaching staff with expertise in policy practice, the structural divide between micro and macro practice, and a general hesitancy to encourage students to take political stands (Weiss et al., 2006). As a result, policy instruction is often a dry analysis and abstract speculation, absent the personal involvement that translates theory into practice and empowers students with skills to pursue meaningful social change.
Fortunately, experiential policy advocacy assignments and activities that provide students with direct, hands-on experiences are finding their way into social welfare policy classrooms. Numerous recent examples have been reported in the literature and include providing ballot-based advocacy assignments (Manalo, 2004), developing policy briefs to be presented to elected officials (Sundet & Kelly, 2002), organizing letter writing and phone-in campaigns (Rocha, 2000), and lobbying state legislators through an organized legislative lobby day (Moore & Johnston, 2002). Others have developed even more elaborate methods of teaching policy practice to social work students. Hoefer (1999) describes the Social Work and Politics Initiative, a model for 2nd-year master's-level students that combines a politics and social work course with field practica in state legislators' district offices. Sherraden, Slosar, and Sherraden (2002) present a collaborative model of policy advocacy in which researchers, practitioners, advocates, and students worked together over 5 years to pass legislation at the state level. Finally, Anderson and Harris (2005) describe two approaches for undergraduates: a service-learning approach in which students in their junior year work in groups and engage in community-based research on a specific policy problem, and a practicum-based approach in which seniors take a policy course in conjunction with a practicum in the community that focuses on analyzing agency policy.
Evaluations of these experiential learning activities and initiatives show that students are more likely to engage in policy advocacy activities in the future (Rocha, 2000; Manalo, 2004), to value political skills (Rocha, 2000), to be able to interpret social policy (Anderson & Harris, 2005), and to perceive themselves as competent policy practitioners (Rocha, 2000). A number of shortcomings can be identified, however, in the approaches described previously. As a group, they fail to bring students together for collective action on a specific social problem in which they achieve real policy gains, and to do so within the context of a course on social welfare policy. In the Social Work and Politics Initiative described by Hoefer (1999), as well as in the practicum-based approach described by Anderson and Harris (2005), students worked individually, rather than collectively, and worked on various policy matters rather than on a single target issue in their legislator's district offices. It is unclear to what extent student participation in the collaboration described by Sherraden et al. (2002) was tied to a course in social welfare policy; however, the authors state that only five students participated over the course of 2 years. Additionally, in the service-learning approach described by Anderson and Harris (2005), although students from a policy course worked collectively to conduct community-based research on a specific problem, they did not engage in policy advocacy or direct action to ameliorate the problem.
A new approach to the teaching and training of social work students in policy practice is needed for two basic reasons. First, students need to fully realize the link between the plight of their clients and the policies that affect them and to be comfortable engaging in policy change practices with and on clients' behalf. New pedagogical innovations in teaching policy practice are thus needed so that social workers make it an integral part of their professional practice, no matter their setting or specialization. Second, contemporary America is burdened by many economic, social, and cultural problems, both at home and abroad, and desperately needs social policy solutions that draw from the values, knowledge, and practice of social work. Recent generational and political changes provide a rare window of opportunity for change that can be lead by our profession if social workers are provided with the necessary policy practice tools to be a part of that change.
This article presents an innovative instructional approach for social welfare policy advocacy: Practicing Policy, Pursuing Change, and Promoting Social Justice (3P). We begin by describing the eight stages of the 3P approach in detail. Interwoven throughout are case study examples from one school of social work that adopted the 3P approach. We conclude by suggesting ways of replicating the 3P approach at schools of social work nationwide and discussing implications for social work research and education.
Description of the 3P Approach
3P is an eight-stage approach for teaching and training social workers in policy practice that aims not merely to teach students the theory of policy practice, but to help them develop skills and competencies to engage in it, as well as become motivated to make it an important part of their professional practice. The approach incorporates elements of a typical master's-level Social welfare policy course in that it provides instruction, from a theoretical perspective, on (1) identifying and analyzing social problems, (2) developing policy solutions, (3) understanding legislative policy arenas, and (4) understanding the provisions of major social welfare policies in the United States and their effectiveness in addressing social problems. What makes the approach different is its focus on policy not only as an abstract object, such as a piece of legislation, but also as a practice in which students are engaged with their peers. It goes beyond traditional social welfare policy courses by teaching students how to build an agenda around a single target issue and articulate a rationale for engaging in policy advocacy on that issue. It also provides a context in which they practice policy directly through a …