Abstract: Working Conditions of Minnesota School Social Workers (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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100P Working Conditions of Minnesota School Social Workers

Thursday, January 12, 2023
Phoenix C, 3rd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Jacob Otis, MSW, Student, University of Minnesota, Falcon Heights, MN
Jessica Mendel, MSW, Student, University of Minnesota, MN
Ruti Soffer-Elnekave, Student, University of Minnesota, MN
Mingyang Zheng, Assistant Professor, Radford University, VA
Molly Calhoun, Assistant Professor, California State University Chico, CA
Jessica Toft, Associate Professor, University of Minnesota, MN
Background: School social workers (SSWs) work within school systems to help students to help manage their emotional, social, and general wellbeing. Research has found that SSWs have a significant positive impact on students’ engagement and education (Newsome, et al., 2008). Their clients, students, face numerous academic and nonacademic obstacles, which have all been exacerbated by COVID-19 (Watson et al., 2022). Neoliberal managerialism, which prioritizes the use of business principles over person-centered approaches in human services, has decentralized the priority of SSWs-student relationships, and led to the deprioritization of the needs of students. Currently, there are very limited workforce studies that attempt to measure and quantify the mechanisms of neoliberalism and its impact on SSW’s professional discretion. Even fewer have measured the degree to which SSW have resisted this erosion of their professional discretion.

This quantitative assessment of SSWs assesses their experiences of neoliberal managerialism in Minnesota schools. We ask: 1) To what extent do SSWs experience managerialism? 2) How much professional discretion do they have? 3) To what degree have they resisted neoliberal managerialism?

Methods: All licensed Minnesota social workers were invited to complete an online survey about their working conditions. Among respondents (n=3,662), 394 self-described themselves as a direct-service SSWs. Respondents were 92% white and female, 82% held their master’s degree, had 17 years of practice experience on average, and 68% worked in an urban area. They were asked to respond to questions on their practice, extent of managerialism, their breadth of professional discretion, and the extent of their actions of resistance. Measures were sourced from a literature scoping review, prior workforce items, research and theory, team’s professional practice experience, and expert consultation (scale validation ongoing).

Results: For managerialism, 64% of SSWs reported being pressured by management to take on more clients, 58% were pushed to prioritize quantity of work over quality, and 50% reported management increasing oversight when their performance quotas were not met. Additionally, 43% of SSWs reported feeling burned out. Regarding professional discretion, 74% reported being limited in their ability to incorporate the ecological framework into their work and 62% reported difficulty in engaging with other community agencies to support students. Lastly, for acts of resistance when SSWs disagreed with agency policies 64% reported organizing with coworkers, 52% reported “loosely interpreted eligibility and assessment guidelines”, and 36% reported practicing outside of management approved interventions.

Conclusions: Neoliberal managerialism and its impacts on professional discretion make fulfilling the essential services of students unnecessarily challenging. However, this research shows that SSWs are resisting neoliberalism within schools and keeping the needs of students front and center. Future research must further explore the levers of power that hinder and support resistance of neoliberalism within our schools.