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Strengthening Social Work Through Education, Practice — and Licensure
By Saundra Starks, MSW, EdD

At its core, social work is a profession that truly can change lives. But to do that, social workers need to understand how the various aspects of our work—such as education, practice, and licensure—complement one another to provide a strong foundation that offers legitimacy among our peers and colleagues. It is through collaboration, this coming together, that ultimately will lead to a stronger licensure process and a strong profession.

For more than 45 years, I’ve served in numerous capacities throughout the social work field, gaining an extensive understanding of social work practice, consulting, and supervision. Above all else, I’ve seen that every cohort within our profession—educators, regulators, and practitioners—must be able to effectively collaborate to elevate our profession and best serve all our clients. To function at its best, this work must also include licensure and the licensing exam process—namely, developing, updating, and maintaining assessments that are fair, inclusive, valid, and reliable. Licensure supports our profession’s commitment to competence and high standards of practice.

As educators, we are intentional about preparing students to become high-performing social workers. As such, we must also be serious about licensure and the role of exams that help us monitor and assess accountability. As the program director for the Master of Social Work program at Western Kentucky University, my team and I put this belief into practice. Our model starts with teaching our students that being a professional social worker means you move toward licensure and, ideally, become licensed. Thus, our program culminates with a practice readiness exam that prepares students to take the licensing exams—to fully prepare them for today’s quickly changing world.

Over the past several years, our profession has made great strides and paradigm shifts. I’ve seen those changes firsthand. For instance, how we think about helping people today is strongly influenced by our practice of social work within a larger societal context. More than ever, the complexity of modern social work requires us to interact closely with people in other professions, from politics to law to medicine. We are at our strongest when all aspects of the profession join together. And being licensed puts social workers in the best possible position to succeed: as professional partners at the table, having a say in decisions that affect our clients, our profession, and our constituencies.

In this context, the social work profession benefits greatly from licensure because it solidifies the legitimacy of our work. In turn, the exams are a critical component of the licensure process because they provide an objective way to measure entry-level competence for the profession. Does this process need continual review and update for relevancy? Yes. However, the licensing exam should not be seen as intimidating; rather, it is a foundational milestone in the process of becoming a licensed social worker.

While serving as a professor, I also had the honor of working on the licensing exams through the Association of Social Work Boards Examination Committee. This journey helped influence my understanding and teaching of the social work curriculum and competencies and offered me an opportunity to influence the exam content. I would encourage my academic colleagues to also consider getting involved with the exam program and further educating themselves about how the process works. We have an obligation to prepare the next generation of social workers to practice in a world with constant political and social change. And it’s by coming together collaboratively that we strengthen the licensure process.

As someone who has experience with practice, consulting, and supervision—in addition to being an educator—I know that social work faculty members are in a perfect position to transform the profession and prepare students to succeed in all aspects of social work. This can occur only if we stay up to date with best practices and in tune with the rest of the profession on this journey toward social justice, equity, inclusion, and belonging.

History is rich with amazing social workers from complex and diverse backgrounds who have done transformative things in tough times. I truly believe that social work students in school today are building on that legacy, positioning us to move even more strongly forward. They ask tough questions, face difficult conversations, and challenge us to do better as individuals and as  a profession. They’re helping to fight social injustice and move us toward a more just and equitable society. We would be doing them a disservice if our collective profession did not give them the best chance to succeed—which means giving them every tool they need to pass the exams and obtain licensure.

— Saundra Starks, MSW, EdD, is professor emeritus of social work and recent Master of Social Work program director at Western Kentucky University. She has more than 45 years of social work practice experience, including teaching, research, consultation, supervision, and clinical practice. Starks has numerous presentations and publications in the areas of diversity, women, spirituality, mental health, supervision, cultural competency, mentoring, and leadership training. She also maintains a part-time psychotherapy practice, Bower, Starks, Reeves & Hayes, in Bowling Green, Kentucky. In addition, she serves on several national, international, and local community service committees and boards and has served on the boards of NASW, the Council on Social Work Education, and the Association of Social Work Boards. She has an extensive background of international teaching that includes courses in Taiwan, Tanzania, Ghana, and Belize.