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The Stories We Tell Ourselves Part 1: School Social Work and Casework

The Stories We Tell Ourselves Part 1: School Social Work and Casework

School social work is considered a specialized domain of practice. To demonstrate, according to the Council on Social Work Education’s (CSWE) directory of accredited social work programs, 50 MSW programs have a special certificate option in school social work and 31 programs have specialized school social work tracks. In several states school social workers are required to take specific courses and acquire supervision hours in a school. For example, in Illinois, a school social worker must take an exam and have 600 hours of internship experience in a school setting. Across these various professionalized requirements are expectations around evidence-based practice (EBPs). Specifically, the knowledge and ability to implement EBPs in school settings.

The EBP movement in social work began in the 1970s during a period when the social work profession was struggling to sustain legitimacy in a society focused on scientific validity and objectivity. Innovations in statistical methods and technology in the late 20th century meant that social work interventions could be evaluated in new ways (Bellamy, Bledsoe & Traube, 2006; Okpych & Yu, 2014). Over the next five decades, social work research would focus heavily on evaluating existing interventions as well as develop new interventions based on various theories of psychosocial development and change. While EBPs are well funded and widely supported, the EBP movement has also garnered criticism (Mosley, Marwell & Ybarra 2019). Critics of the EBP movement have illuminated shortcomings of EBPs- they are often developed without client or practitioner perspective, much of the research on EBPs is not disseminated to practitioners, and EBPs overwhelmingly do not take into account structural oppression such as racism or patriarchy. While the EBP movement in the late 20th century certainly set new practice standards, school social work has had a longstanding relationship with science. Specifically, the pushes to be scientific, ‘objective’, and effective are not new. In fact, the relationship between science and social work, and its critics, reaches back to the early 20th century.

In this story, I will explore the relationship between professionalization, racism, and science in school social work by focusing on the development of casework in the 20th century. To do this I will first provide a brief history of the visiting teachers' movement as well as contextualize school social work in the social-political dynamics of the period. When describing the social-political context of the early 20th century I pay special attention to the eugenics movement and racialized public fear of the ‘Other’. Afterward, I give an example of how casework, as ‘scientific social reform’, was used by visiting teachers to racially stratify public education.

The History of the Visiting Teachers Movement

The professionalization of school social work began in 1906 in the New York City and Boston public schools when settlement house social workers, called visiting teachers, shifted to school-based practice (Oppenheimer, 1924). From 1906-1914 visiting teachers were primarily affluent White women sponsored by charity organizations and private foundations to practice in primarily urban cities in the Northeast and Upper Midwest. The localized informal school-based practice quickly made efforts to professionalize and become a distinguished domain of social work practice. However, the path to professionalization was not linear. Public school districts were confused by the role and contribution of visiting teachers. For example, a 1924 evaluation of the visiting teachers' movement noted that the contribution of “interpreting the home to the school” and “helping the individual child” was too vague (Oppenheimer, 1924).

By the 1920s the value and worth of visiting teachers were determined by statistics and ideas of ‘objective’ effectiveness. In order to answer the question “Is the visiting teacher worth the salary which is paid her?” (Dr. Deiniger, Board of Superintendents of Philadelphia, 1923) visiting teachers had to define their labor in a way that was easily isolated and measurable.

This is a portion of the 1924 report. Here the report is comparing the academic outcomes of students who worked with visiting teachers to those do did not work with visiting teachers. This image demonstrates that the perceived value of visiting teachers was based on quantifiable data.

Throughout the early 20th century visiting teachers did not have employment security because they were not conclusively seen as essential by powerful institutions. School superintendents, social scientists, and other government workers did not widely accept visiting teachers as legitimate because they could not confidently measure their worth. Visiting teachers responded to this challenge of objectivity and professional legitimacy in two ways:

  1. Claiming prevention work was economically and politically sound
  2. Orienting their practice around ‘scientific social reform’ otherwise known as casework

The Economic and Political Value of Prevention Work

During the early 20th-century prevention efforts were directly connected to the social upheaval caused by mass immigration and migration. These mass movements of people challenged post-Reconstruction racial-economic hierarchies. As a result, 1920s American society was consumed with discourse about the non-White, not American-born ‘Other’. One of the ways this discourse manifested was fear of “delinquency” from immigrants and Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). With growing public discourse and fear, the visiting teachers' movement found a way to secure their value and employment- by being part of anti-crime prevention efforts in public schools.

Despite this story occurring almost a century ago, the framing of social services as an economically and politically sound preventative strategy (as opposed to a moral obligation or human rights issue) is familiar. Visiting teachers and school districts claimed that the “…visiting teacher [was] a potent agent in the prevention of delinquency” (Oppenheimer, 1924, page 61). This response was effective at asserting the visiting teachers’ social value in racialized prevention efforts.

An editorial cartoon from 1921 illustrates anti-immigration sentiments of the period

Casework as ‘Scientific Social Reform’

However, prevention work did not guarantee visiting teacher's professional legitimacy and employment. Those in power wanted an ‘objective’ rationale for the economic value of visiting teachers. This meant that the emerging visiting teacher movement had to be seen as scientific to be considered legitimate. The desire for objectivity coalesced with the emergence of casework in the 1920s. Mary Richmond’s books Social Diagnosis (Richmond, 1917) and What is Social Case Work? (Richmond, 1922) were hugely influential to social work broadly. At the time casework was a source of professional pride. Rather than being adopted by the profession from outside discipline casework came from within our profession. Ultimately casework gained popularity because its logic aligned with veneers of scientific ‘objectivity’ and White supremacist ideology, specifically eugenics (Kennedy, 2008).

A 1921 image intended to represent the scientific basis of eugenics

American society in the 1920s widely used and advertised White supremacist pseudo-science, known as eugenics, to justify racist policies. Eugenics was utilized in the early 20th century to protect the economic, social, and political privilege of Whiteness. Eugenics practices in the early 20th century included the forced sterilization of BIPOC women and poor women. The early 20th-century image above was meant to advertise eugenics as a ‘legitimate’ science that drew from genetics, psychology, statistics, etc. While visiting teachers did not directly use eugenics practices (sterilization), eugenics ideas informed visiting teachers’ ideas about which students were ‘smart’ and which students were ‘deviant’.

An image from 1922 that connects intelligence testing in public education to eugenics

The connection between eugenics ideas and public education was advertised to the public throughout the early 20th century. For example, in the image above the ‘old method’ of organizing public education was ‘guesswork’. With casework and eugenics-directed thinking, the new method of stratifying public education became ‘objective’ and ‘scientific’. In the image education, portrayed as a White woman, is using an intelligence test, portrayed as a scientific magnifying glass, along with psychology books to measure the student’s capacity. Intelligence tests were directly linked to eugenics ideology and were used in the visiting teachers movement as part of casework. In line with eugenics, intelligence tests were a way to codify racial and class stratification in public education. While the image above portrays White children, by 1922 the visiting teachers' movement had a national presence and served immigrant and BIPOC families. Given this context, we have to acknowledge that the visiting teachers' movement exposed immigrant and BIPOC families to eugenics-directed decision-making.

This image was widely circulated in the visiting teachers movement throughout the early 20th century

Ultimately, casework’s veneer of scientific objectivity did not prevent harm or remove eugenics ideology from manifesting in practice. The drawing above is from a 1929 issue of the Bulletin. It was meant to portray the types of students visiting teachers worked with. If the visiting teachers' movement documented work with BIPOC families, we have to ask why White children were being centered. The above image is one of many drawings depicting White children in schools. Beyond depicting public school students as White, this image links childhood and innocence to Whiteness. In the context of public fear about BIPOC communities and eugenics ideologies, this image had implications for which children were diagnosed with “emotional disturbances” versus which children were considered “delinquents”. In the archives, these two diagnoses were stratified across student racial groups and lead to drastically different interventions. Ultimately eugenics thinking directed the visiting teachers' movement’s use of casework.

The visiting teachers' movement advertised their casework services to districts across the country while simultaneously centering Whiteness. Additionally, all of the casework materials disseminated by visiting teachers failed to acknowledge how racism in education or society affected student wellbeing. The contrast between these race-evasive narratives and the devastating White violence of the 1920s reveals a disconnect between life and practice. Casework did not include discussions of racism or economic oppression. Work with students and families in public schools did not consider identity, empowerment, or frame exposure to racism as a risk to students’ wellbeing. Within casework, solutions were never structural and instead always focused on changing individuals.

Despite case work’s roots in eugenics ideology (or maybe because of these roots), the door was opened for visiting teachers to label casework as ‘scientific social reform’. The work of ‘scientific social reform’ included using survey instruments to assess students and families, making a ‘social diagnosis’, and documenting the course of treatment through extensive case notes. Much like current EBPs, casework relied on intensive measurement and documentation to track student progress. Under the influence of casework, visiting teachers began placing emphasis on the individual process of change and measuring that change.

By adopting casework visiting teachers could merge new ‘scientific’, eugenics-directed practices with the prevention of “delinquency”. This merged racially motivated public interest with racialized scientific social reform. In schools this manifested as techniques to change the student, change the classroom, and change the family. The move toward a practice grounded in racialized scientific social reform legitimized the visiting teacher movement. So much so that at the end of the 1920s private charities and public districts began hiring visiting teachers explicitly for their casework skills.

Example of Casework as Eugenics-Directed Practice

This is a case example of “poor scholarship” from a 1926 issue of the Bulletin. This issue of the Bulletin explored visiting teacher practice in New York City. This particular case opened with a visiting teacher working with a Black 15-year-old girl who was struggling academically. In addition to describing the presenting problem (academic difficulty), the text makes it clear that Amelia attended a school with White peers. The visiting teacher believed that Amelia was more suited to an industrial school. During the Progressive Era industrial schools were similar to contemporary vocational schools. They were highly racialized and minorized settings where poor, non-White, and immigrant students were diverted. In contrast, American-born, White, and middle-class students tended to track into traditional schools which prepared them for higher education. This early form of student tracking based on perceived ability formed local practices of school segregation.

Case from a 1926 issue of the Bulletin
Case continued

The case study continues in the excerpt below. Here the visiting teacher begun to work with Amelia’s family and revealed a supposed family secret- that Amelia was being raised by her Aunt and Uncle. The case study presented this family structure as a deviation from the standard and by doing so normed a specific image of family. This documentation of a ‘deviant’ family structure reflected the aim of casework- to diagnosis social problems within families and individuals in order to adjust people to social norms defined by White supremacy. The case goes onto describe that Amelia was raised to engage in artistic and intelligential pursuits. Amelia was not raised to “soil her hands with housework”. To contextualize this statement, housework was one of the few labor markets Black women had access to during the early 20th century. Instead of physical labor Amelia was brought up to “play piano, sing and aspire to a college education, and become a leader of her people”.

Case continued

The case study concludes in the excerpt below. The visiting teacher described Amelia and her Aunt as being in a cycle of lying, disappointment, and even abuse. The visiting teacher identified the problem as originating in Aunt’s “superiority idea”. The meaning of this phrase is unclear. Is the desire for Amelia to become a contributor of Black intellectual thought a mark of “superiority”? Or is that the Aunt is not respectful of Amelia’s agency? It is impossible to determine the motivation behind the use of the word “superiority”. However, it is evident that the visiting teacher pushed for Amelia to be evaluated by a psychiatrist. Specifically to have Amelia take an intelligence test. Which showed that she was “totally unfitted for the general course”. As stated previously, intelligence tests were linked to eugenics ideology and were frequently used to prove that BIPOC and immigrant children were inferior to White, American-born children.

Case continued
Case continued

The visiting teachers' movement presented this case as a success and appropriate use of casework. Specifically the process of assessing the family, using intelligence tests, and documenting the process. The use of intelligence testing may seem benign or even objective. However, intelligence and ‘mental ability’ were central to the early 20th-century eugenics movement. Extensive research was done to attach nationally and race to ‘mental ability’. Specifically to establish that non-American born, non-White, and economically oppressed people were inherently inferior. Additionally, it underscores the intersection of White supremacy and ableism. Particularly that White supremacy and ableism acted in conjunction with each other to create linked racial and dis/ability student categories. Notably, the visiting teacher wrote that by enrolling in the trade school Amelia was “following the kind of work she was best able to perform”. The case closed with a happy portrait of the family, “even the aunt was satisfied and agreed that ‘character is better than a college education’”.

Ultimately, this example of casework focused on a Black adolescent girl contrasts against many of the other examples of casework focused on White, American-born, and European immigrant groups. Most of the cases the visiting teachers' movement published were focused on European immigrant students who came from economically oppressed households and households with family structures that were deemed non-normative. In those cases, the students and families often received scholarships to relieve distress or hardship. The purpose of these scholarships was to help the student remain in school and support the family structure. Few of the visiting teachers' movement case examples focused on BIPOC students and there was no evidence that cash assistance was provided to BIPOC students and families. Notably in the case presented eugenics ideology stratified the implementation of casework based on racialized perception of students and families.


In the early 20th century, the visiting teachers' movement was fueled by a desire to be perceived as legitimate by powerful people and organizations. Casework helped pave the road to legitimacy by merging racialized public fear and with scientific objectivity. Throughout the story, I demonstrated that notions of scientific objectivity did not prevent White supremacist ideology, specifically eugenics, from influencing practice. Further that the use of casework was highly racialized and codified racial stratification in public education. Lastly, the contrasting use of casework in the provided example illuminated the stratified way casework was deployed based on students’ racial identity, gender identity, class status, and immigration status. Visiting teachers, much like school social workers today, have the ability to codify racial stratification in public education or resist it.

One of the tenets of critical race theory (CRT) is that racism is endemic to American life. If we understand that racism is endemic to American life, the use of eugenics ideology to direct casework becomes unsurprising. This recognition further pushes us to critically examine the origins of EBPs and our use of them. While many contemporary EBPs may not be directly rooted in eugenics, they are often created without consideration for BIPOC populations, practitioner voice, client voice, geographic region, culture, or structural oppression. As a result, though they are regarded as the scientific gold standard, they can be a source of harm, do not resolve structural problems, and are often used to justify race-evasiveness. This history illuminates a present day tension in our profession- school social work uses limited EBPs and is accountable to social justice movements. In this vein, the rest of this series will continue centering accountability in school social work by exploring the tensions of our professional history.


Bellamy, J. L., Bledsoe, S. E., & Traube, D. E. (2006). The current state of evidence-based practice in social work: A review of the literature and qualitative analysis of expert interviews. Journal of Evidence-Based Social Work, 3(1), 23-48. 10.1300/J394v03n01_02

Kennedy, A. C. (2008). Eugenics,“degenerate girls,” and social workers during the progressive era. Affilia, 23(1), 22-37. 10.1177/0886109907310473

Mosley, J. E., Marwell, N. P., & Ybarra, M. (2019). How the “what works” movement is failing human service organizations, and what social work can do to fix it. Human Service Organizations: Management, Leadership & Governance, 43(4), 326-335. 10.1080/23303131.2019.1672598

National Association of Visiting Teachers. (1926). Bulletin of the National Association of Visiting Teachers. 2(4), 1-32.

Okpych, N. J., & Yu, J. L. H. (2014). A historical analysis of evidence-based practice in social work: The unfinished journey toward an empirically grounded profession. Social Service Review, 88(1), 3–58. 10.1086/674969

Oppenheimer, J. J. (1924). The visiting teacher movement: With special reference to administrative relationships (No. 5). New York: Joint Committee on Methods of Preventing Delinquency.

About The Author

Samantha Guz

Samantha Guz LCSW is a doctoral student at the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice at the University of Chicago. Her research interests include school social work, public education policy and politics, holistic family and adolescent wellbeing, gendered Whiteness, as well as critical feminist research and practice. Her current work is focused on alternative high schools and gendered Whiteness within the profession of social work.

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