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Persistence of perception.

I was most interested in the article, "The Validity of the 2004 US News &World Report's Rankings of Schools of Social Work," by Robert G. Green and colleagues (April 2006) regarding the evaluation of schools of social work, specifically by US. News & World Report (USNWR). Of particular interest was the observation that there were "conspicuous differences across the groups when comparing the rankings of individual schools by NASW members to those of faculty members and deans," (p. 140) singling out Smith College as noteworthy for being ranked 19th by USNWR but being ranked first by the practitioners. My experience has allowed me to observe a curiously similar phenomenon.

As background, I will tell you that I am a 1987 graduate of the George Warren Brown (GWB) School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis (ranked #2). I will confess that coming from another field entirely I was woefully unaware of neither rankings (if they even existed) nor the respectability of the program upon my entrance to GWB. And in working two jobs while attending grad school, I didn't have much time to reflect on the education I was receiving. Following graduation with my MSW, I worked in a counseling agency in St. Louis for five years before relocating to Connecticut, where I have been in private practice for the last 14 years.

I must say, however, that I was immediately struck upon my relocation to Connecticut (a state that is home to a large number of graduates from nearby Smith) by the fact that most practitioners, overwhelmingly, had not even heard of Washington University and were generally dismissive of the University of Michigan program (consistently ranked #1). More remarkable was the assumption that Smith College's program "must" be ranked first. I should note that at some point I gave in to my curiosity and looked up the USNWR rankings and discovered the disparity that Green and colleagues recently cited.

Over the years I have pondered the persistence of this perception. Given the large number of Smith grads in CT, I have informally inquired about the educational experiences of numerous colleagues from Smith. And I have surmised that there are two factors that contribute largely to this perception.

First, the school seems to have a strong emphasis on traditional psychotherapy practice, thus providing its graduates with a solid foundation for their careers in treatment. Second, the college seems to have been quite successful in nurturing a "community" connection among its students and graduates. In combination, I believe, these factors contribute to this perception of primacy.

Ironically, for me, it has only been in practicing in an environment imbued with this perception that I have come to appreciate the extraordinary education I received at GWB. The challenge of the class work was rigorous, to be sure, but it was the diversity (of faculty, student body, and practice arenas) and the breadth of the program (exposing me to the other aspects of social work practice) that proved formative.

I do not mean to, in the least, sully the educational experience of Smith College graduates. Quite the contrary, I have appreciated the areas in which they have excelled. But it has been through contrast that I have seen the clear strengths I inherited through my MSW education. GWB's intelligent approach to scholarship gave me an understanding of how the "academic" informs practice, especially in evaluating the rationales and helpfulness of the continuing education to which all practicing social workers are exposed. I can see, however, that the very diversity that contributes to GWB's strengths may work against it in nurturing a communal attachment.

Perception seems uniquely vulnerable to emotional attachment. It should be approached skeptically as a criterion for evaluative purposes. Perception, after all, is notoriously fiche and subject to manipulation through propaganda. I appreciate this opportunity to express myself and contribute to the larger conversation of how to fairly and reasonably evaluate the many programs offering social work education and preparation.

Joan E. Offner

Chester, CT
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Title Annotation:LETTERS
Author:Offner, Joan E.
Publication:Social Work
Article Type:Letter to the editor
Date:Apr 1, 2007
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