Serving the Community and Training Social Workers: Service Outputs and Student Outcomes

Article excerpt

THIS ARTICLE COMPARES learning opportunities of MSW students placed in traditional agency-based field placement with those placed in a university developed community-based field placement agency called Social Work Consultation Services (SWCS). SWCS was designed to provide students a full range of generalist social work practice experiences and was built upon the principles of civic engagement. Specifically, the paper examines and compares the micro and macro practice learning experiences of students placed in traditional field placements with those placed at SWCS over a 4-year period. Both qualitative and quantitative student outcome data are presented that address the following evaluation research questions:

1. Is there a difference between SWCS interns and those in traditional field placements in terms of their micro and macro practice skills development?

2. What do SWCS interns perceive as the benefits and limitations of an SWCS field placement?

3. Do SWCS interns articulate commitment to civic engagement and working in under-resourced communities?

Challenges Facing Contemporary Field Education

Field education has long been a central component of social work education. However, over the last 10 to 15 years, changes in the funding and management structures for almost all human services have severely compromised the availability of adequate field internship opportunities at all levels of social work education. The spread of managed care, perhaps the most dramatic change of all, has rendered protected caseloads and dedicated field instruction for social work interns increasingly difficult to secure (Kissman & Tran, 1990; Knight, 2001; Fortune, Feathers, & Rook, 1985). Social service funding reductions and staff turnover exacerbate the problem, and each year field instruction programs face the challenge of securing viable placement sites and qualified field instructors.

Making the situation even worse, many field internships do not necessarily lend themselves to providing students with the range of placement experiences needed to support baccalaureate social work and MSW foundation-level generalist training requirements (Koerin, Reeves, & Rosenblum, 2000; Rabin, Savaya, & Frank, 1994). Most human service agencies tend to provide direct services to targeted client populations. A much smaller number of agencies engage in planning or community development, or both, and an even smaller number are devoted to policy analysis and development. Thus, creating student learning opportunities and field placements that are truly generalist in nature is an on-going challenge.

In response, some social work education programs have developed alternative or nontraditional field opportunities. At one end of the spectrum are schools that have attempted to enhance practicum experiences through the modification of course assignments (Wolk, 1994), neighborhood network development (Morrison et al., 1997), or simulations of community-based practice using data from actual university-agency collaborations (Lowe, 1996). Others have developed partnerships with existing agencies, such as the management training opportunities provided by Boston University's collaboration with a consortium of settlement houses in Massachusetts (Mulroy & Cragin, 1994). A few schools have even developed their own agencies as a way of creating optimal field placement options, such as in the University of Tel Aviv (Rabin et al., 1994) and in the University of Maryland--Baltimore (D. Cook, personal communication, September 20, 2004).

A Field Placement Solution

The creation of Social Work Consultation Services (SWCS), a student field placement agency, was motivated by the interest of our social work faculty in addressing the human service needs of the university's local community--an under-resourced and socio-economically disadvantaged community--as well as by the on-going challenge of providing generalist field placement experiences for our students. …