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Embracing 12 Grand Challenges for Social Work to Transform Schools & Communities

Embracing 12 Grand Challenges for Social Work to Transform Schools & Communities

By John Shields, PhD, MSW | February 16, 2016
Senior Research Associate, ETR

Last month, I attended the annual conference of the Society for Social Work & Research (SSWR) in Washington, DC. I saw some dear old friends and colleagues, attended a few lavish university receptions (free crab cakes, anyone?), and heard some great presentations on new science in the field of social work. But one session stands out—the launch of the Grand Challenges for Social Work Initiative.

Dr. Richard Barth, distinguished professor and researcher, and president of the American Academy of Social Work & Social Welfare, gave an inspiring speech to launch the Initiative. He challenged social workers in all their forms (students, practitioners, educators, and researchers) to power up the impact of their work through the proven strategies of our field.

Think Boldly and Use the Evidence

For example, he asked us to:

  • Think deeply, boldly, and creatively about our society’s future and social work’s role in shaping that future
  • Develop and implement strategies that bridge the gap between social work research and practice
  • Take proven, evidence-based approaches to scale in critical areas
  • Collaborate with researchers, practitioners, and colleagues in related disciplines to create transformational, lasting social change
  • Achieve greater impact in your own research and practice

12 Grand Challenges

Dr. Barth set out the twelve “grand challenges” that represent a call to action to harness the power of science and tackle the toughest social problems. He asked all social workers to join in the hard work of exploring each grand challenge to see where they might make the greatest contribution.

Never one to back down from a dare, I spent the next few days thinking about the challenges, about what they represent to me as a social worker, and what I could and should be doing to help achieve the grand vision laid out by Dr. Barth and the Academy.

Here are the twelve Grand Challenges for Social Work (with links to more information on each):

  1. Ensure healthy development for all youth
  2. Close the health gap
  3. Stop family violence
  4. Advance long and productive lives
  5. Eradicate social isolation
  6. End homelessness
  7. Create social responses to a changing environment
  8. Harness technology for social good
  9. Promote smart decarceration
  10. Reduce extreme economic inequality
  11. Build financial capability for all
  12. Achieve equal opportunity and justice

This One’s for Me

While all twelve invigorate and resonate with me, and each provides a heady sense of renewed purpose, one really stands out—harness technology for social good. This is what I’ve been working toward for the past 15 years through my efforts at ETR. This, for me, is what it’s all about. This is the rallying cry I’ve been singing from my rooftop. And frankly, I think it’s about time social work researchers claim it as a unifying and defining goal.

These days, myriad data generated by the onslaught of information technologies sit fallow in their silos. In school districts, for example, while excellent systems for harnessing administrative data have been developed in different departments, few databases exist that merge those datasets into something that could be leveraged for the social good.

Attendance data is housed in a way that prevents direct connections to discipline data, which are in turn contained in a different silo than data on educational interventions, which are in turn siloed from student support service data, and so on. Efforts to combine these silos are met with challenging barriers around confidentiality and privacy. Federal regulations such as FERPA and HIPAA are often interpreted so rigidly as to hinder or prevent merging of these essential datasets for practice or research.

We must find ways to combine data silos and harness the power of big data for the social good.

We’ve Shown It Works

Indeed, ETR has been working for over ten years to combine school-based health and wellness service utilization data to educational outcome data at the individual student level. The progress has been slow but fruitful.

Through our long-lasting partnership with the San Francisco Unified School District’s School Health Programs office, ETR has built a secure, online data collection infrastructure that harnesses the power of big data to demonstrate the impact of school-based health and wellness services on academic performance. Since 2011, all social workers and school district nurses have used the “Daily Log” to document their services, meetings and “other duties as assigned.” At present, over a half million services have been logged, involving tens of thousands of students.

But it wasn’t easy. Working with legal consultants and District counsel for the bulk of two years, we were able to put in place a legal framework and a series of MOUs. These cleared the way to connect the Daily Log data to educational characteristics and academic performance outcome data on a large scale.

By connecting service provision data to educational outcome data, we have been able to conduct advanced (i.e., propensity) analyses of causal impact that I would argue rival the rigor of a randomized controlled trial. In this instance, we have begun to successfully harness the power of big data to evaluate the effects of school-based social work services on academic performance.

Preliminary evidence suggests that social workers have statistically and clinically significant positive effects on student attendance and grades, especially in the most academically vulnerable students. ETR and our partners at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare presented our first results at the SSWR conference last week. We are now polishing up our manuscripts for journal submission.

We Can Do More!

While we are proud of this work, we must acknowledge that we have connected just two silos. Several vital sources of data remain, for now, out of our reach. Much work remains to be done to fully harness the power of big data for the social good—not just in our school-based context, but in the many settings where large, observational datasets sit fallow in organization and agency silos.

Imagine connecting child welfare intervention data, juvenile justice data and school performance data into a single dataset, for example. These resources provide a rich dataset critical for effective practice. But the combination of the historical separation of the datasets, and a much-too-common reluctance to share them with researchers, hinders our ability to evaluate and understand the impact of services across social institutions. There are innumerable examples of like dataset combinations that would move our field forward in significant ways.

Despite these historical barriers, I remain hopeful and emboldened by our initial successes. I accept the grand challenge of harnessing technology for social good. I challenge all of you to answer the call for the challenge that speaks best to your own passions and attributes. How can you harness the power of science to tackle our greatest social problems and transform our world?


John Shields, PhD, MSW, is a Senior Research Associate at ETR. He has led the implementation of many evaluation and research projects in partnership with local, state and federal organizations. He can be reached at


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