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August 2019

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What is the effectiveness and use of social workers at all levels and their impact on student outcomes?


Thank you for the question you submitted to our REL Reference Desk regarding the effectiveness and use of social workers at all levels and their impact on student outcomes. We have prepared the following memo with research references to help answer your question. For each reference, we provide an abstract, excerpt, or summary written by the study’s author or publisher. The references are selected from the most commonly used research resources and may not be comprehensive. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. Other relevant studies may exist. We have not evaluated the quality of these references, but provide them for your information only.

Research References

  1. Alvarez, M. E., Bye, L., Bryant, R., & Mumm, A. M. (2013). School social workers and educational outcomes. Children & Schools, 35(4), 235-243. Full text available at
    From the abstract: “Research documenting the contributions of school social workers to students’ educational outcomes is limited. This article reviews the existing literature on school social work outcomes. Analysis of variance results indicated that number of school social workers was a significant predictor of the number of students who completed high school in the 100 largest school districts in the United States in the 2008–2009 school year. To assess whether number of school social workers remained a significant predictor while controlling for district size and poverty rate, a multiple regression was computed. Number of students, poverty rate, and number of school social workers were significant predictors of high school completion. This article shows that the number of school social workers in a school district positively influences the number of high school completers. School districts with school social workers had more students completing high school, indicating that the knowledge and skills that school social workers bring to the school districts can lead to better educational outcomes. This article underscores the need for additional research relating school social worker efforts to educational outcomes. This study could be replicated in states where data sets, which include the number of school social workers per district, already exist.”
  2. Anyon, Y., Nicotera, N., Veeh, C. A. (2016). Contextual influences on the implementation of a schoolwide intervention to promote students' social, emotional, and academic learning. Children & Schools, 38(2), 81-88. Retrieved from: Full text available at:
    From the abstract: “Schoolwide interventions are among the most effective approaches for improving students' behavioral and academic outcomes. However, researchers have documented consistent challenges with implementation fidelity and have argued that school social workers should be engaged in efforts to improve treatment integrity. This study examines contextual influences on the implementation of a whole-school intervention called Responsive Classroom (RC) in one urban K-8 public school serving a diverse student body. RC improves social, emotional, literacy, and math outcomes for disadvantaged students with behavior problems by building on the assets of teachers to intervene with misbehaving students in the classroom setting or school environment. Yet little is understood regarding the factors that constrain or enable implementation of RC in noncontrolled research conditions. Results from a mixed-methods convergent analysis of focus group, observation, and survey data indicate the influence of the following three contextual factors on implementation fidelity: (1) intervention characteristics such as compatibility with staff members' beliefs about behavior change and management, (2) organizational capacity such as principal and teacher buy-in, and (3) the intervention support system such as training and technical assistance. Implications for future school social work research and practice with respect to the implementation of schoolwide programs are discussed.”
  3. McManama O’Brien, K. H., Berzin, S. C., Kelly, M. S., Frey, A. J., Alvarez, M. E., & Shaffer, G. L. (2011). School social work with students with mental health problems: Examining different practice approaches. Children & Schools, 33(2), 97-105. Retrieved from: Full text available at
    From the abstract: “School social workers frequently serve as the primary mental health providers to youths with mental health problems. Although school social workers play a primary role in care, many students also receive outside counseling services. Previous research has not examined whether practice approaches differ when considering mental health practice with students for whom school social workers are the primary providers versus those who receive outside counseling. This article uses respondents from the 2008 National School Social Work Survey who worked primarily with students with either emotional or behavioral problems to examine whether practice approaches differed between groups of school social workers for whom all or most of their students received outside counseling and those for whom few of their students received these services. Results demonstrate that the groups were different with respect to practice choices, as school social workers who worked with students receiving outside counseling reported greater engagement at all levels of the ecological system except for the school domain and the practice approach of group counseling. Both groups cited work with teachers as the least used aspect of school social work practice. Implications for the future of school social work research, practice, and policy are discussed.”
  4. Richard, L. A. & Villarreal Sosa, L. (2014). School social work in Louisiana: A model of practice. Children & Schools, 36(4), 211-220. Retrieved from: Full text available at:
    From the abstract: “Although the role of the school social worker has historically been inconsistent, fragmented, and contextual, concerns about the need to advocate for school social work positions, demonstrate the effectiveness of school social work practice, understand the consequences of role ambiguity, and respond in a proactive way to policy changes has necessitated a focus on the development of a more clearly defined school social work role. The purpose of the current exploratory-descriptive study was to examine the role of school social workers in Louisiana (N = 378). Results of the analysis led to a consistent role definition in Louisiana and the development of a conceptual practice model. This conceptual model and role definition has implications for school social workers' ability to advocate for their positions, provide accountability for their work, and guide the training and education of school social workers.”
  5. Tan, K., Battle, S., Mumm, M., Eschmann, R., & Alvarez, M. (2015). The impact of school social workers on high school freshman graduation among the one hundred largest school districts in the United States. School Social Work Journal, 39(2), 1-14. Retrieved from:
    Full text available at:

    From the abstract: “This article addresses the impact of high school social workers on the graduation rates of incoming freshmen. Following a review of the limited literature on school social workers and student outcomes, it presents results of a study on the relation between school social workers and graduation rates in the one hundred largest school districts in the United States. Findings of this study indicate that the number of school social workers is positively associated with graduation rates in the 2008-09 academic year after controlling for poverty rate and district size. From this finding, the article raises questions that may guide future research regarding the role of school social workers in achieving positive student outcomes.”

Additional Organizations to Consult

  • National Association of Social Workers:
    From the website: “Founded in 1955, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) is the largest membership organization of professional social workers in the world, with more than 120,000 members. NASW works to enhance the professional growth and development of its members, to create and maintain professional standards, and to advance sound social policies.”
  • School Social Work Association of America:
    From the website: “The School Social Work Association of America empowers school social workers and promotes the profession of school social work to enhance the social and emotional growth and academic outcomes of all students.”


Search Strings. Social workers student outcomes OR social workers role in schools OR school social worker impact OR social workers and educational outcomes OR social workers and students OR effectiveness of school social workers OR school social workers implementation

Searched Databases and Resources.

  • ERIC
  • Academic Databases (e.g., EBSCO databases, JSTOR database, ProQuest, Google Scholar)
  • Commercial search engines (e.g., Google)
  • Institute of Education Sciences Resources

Reference Search and Selection Criteria. The following factors are considered when selecting references:

  • Date of Publication: Priority is given to references published in the past 10 years.
  • Search Priorities of Reference Sources: ERIC, other academic databases, Institute of Education Sciences Resources, and other resources including general internet searches
  • Methodology: Priority is given to the most rigorous study types, such as randomized controlled trials and quasi-experimental designs, as well as to correlational designs, descriptive analyses, mixed methods and literature reviews. Other considerations include the target population and sample, including their relevance to the question, generalizability, and general quality.

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This Ask A REL was prepared under Contract ED-IES-17-C-0006 by Regional Educational Laboratory Mid-Atlantic administered by Mathematica Policy Research. The content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.