The Penn Approach

Since its founding in 1908, the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy & Practice has articulated a social philosophy that shapes the social work program the School offers, the research it undertakes, and the leadership it provides to the profession. This statement of social philosophy – The Penn Approach – is first and foremost an evolving document. It is continuously revised to reflect the changing requirements of those in greatest need in our society. It also reflects the faculty’s commitment to introduce students, particularly MSW students, to a variety of perspectives related to social work practice, social change, social policy, research, racism and oppression, and the nature of human behavior in the social environment. The Penn Approach is not a static or dogmatic approach to practice, but rather is descriptive of a perspective of critical and constructive inquiry.

The Penn Approach to the education of future social work professionals includes the unique contributions to the values of the profession and four major perspectives:

  • a clear understanding and respect for the past;
  • analysis of current professional issues;
  • a vision of the future that reflects a commitment to social change; and
  • knowledge appreciation and knowledge generation on local, national and global issues.

The Significance of Penn in Social Work History

The University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy & Practice is one of the oldest social work programs in the world. Its origins date to 1908 when a “Course of Training in Child Helping” was developed under the direction of the Children’s Bureau of Philadelphia. J. Prentice Murphy, director of the Children’s Bureau and a national leader in social services to children, was the program’s director and Carl Kelsey, professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, was consulting director. Mary Richmond, General Secretary of the Philadelphia Society, offered four courses in succession over a period of eight months, with an introductory lecture for Organizing Charity, on “Social Work as a Profession.”

In 1910 the Children’s Bureau lecture series expanded into “…a definitely organized school called the ‘Philadelphia Training School for Social Work,'” with a curriculum providing for both class work and field work and with tests for graduation. William O. Easton, educational director of the Central YMCA, headed the school. The teaching staff was largely composed of directors of local social service agencies, including Porter R. Lee, who succeeded Mary Richmond as director of the Philadelphia Society for Organizing Charity and, later, was director of the New York School of Social Work for many years.

In 1911, the program of the Philadelphia Training School for Social Work expanded to include not only lectures but also practical field work. The new School’s curriculum included training in social work in the public schools, the “placing out” (foster care) of dependent children, protective work with children, the study of neighborhood conditions, problems of public health for charities, the work of the juvenile training schools, the work of the juvenile court and probation, medical social service, institutional care of dependent children, organized charity, and child labor.

Sixty-three students enrolled in the fall of 1910. Fifty-four of these made up the School’s first graduating class, which celebrated its commencement at a festive dinner on June 1, 1911 at the Central YMCA. Alexander Johnson, newly elected President of the National Conference of Charities and Corrections, traveled to Philadelphia to speak at the occasion.

In the fall of 1916 the School was incorporated under the name of the Pennsylvania School for Social Service, hired a full-time director, and introduced a program of instruction by agency administrators. Some of the courses included: “Social Statistics and Research,” “Psychology in Social Work,” “Housing and Community Sanitation,” “Industrial Problems,” “Development of Social Institutions,” and two sections of “Principles and Techniques of Casework.” The Pennsylvania School for Social Service subscribed to a philosophy of social work that emphasized an understanding of environmental issues as well as individual and family problems. Because of its close relationship with the University of Pennsylvania throughout its early history, students at the Pennsylvania School received broader, more academic training than did students in schools more closely tied to social service agencies.

School’s History

1908 – Training in Child Helping
1910 – Philadelphia Training School for Social Work
1915 – Pennsylvania School for Social Service
1922 – Pennsylvania School of Social and Health Work
1934 – Pennsylvania School of Social Work
1948 – University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work
2005 – University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy & Practice

The Pioneers

By the early 1920’s several faculty appointments were made that were to heavily influence the future direction of the Pennsylvania School, known in this decade as the Pennsylvania School for Social and Health Work. Virginia Robinson, later to become instrumental in determining the theoretical orientation of the school, was hired to be director of field instruction. Karl DeSchweinitz, who became General Secretary of the Family Service Society of Philadelphia (formerly the Society for Organizing Charity) also began teaching courses at the Pennsylvania School. Jessie Taft, who along with Virginia Robinson developed the Functional Approach to social work practice, moved to Philadelphia to accept a position as director of the Department of Child Study of the Siebert Institution, and began teaching on an adjunct basis at the Pennsylvania School.

Perhaps the greatest influence on the future direction of the Pennsylvania School was the appointment of Kenneth L. M. Pray as director in 1922. Pray, whose academic training was in political science, had been a journalist and community organizer. Pray formulated a statement of the school’s philosophy emphasizing the role of the environment in problem formation and as a focus for change. “Training and practice in specialized fields, such as family case work, group work, health work, research, or community organization in the narrower sense, must be founded upon, not substituted for, an understanding of the underlying community problems out of which arise the special conditions that confront social and health workers in their daily tasks.” Thus, while other schools changed their curricula during the 1920s to incorporate an emphasis on individuals as the locus for change, the Pennsylvania School retained its emphasis on the sociological aspects of human behavior (person-in-environment) on the individual as influenced by participation in a variety of groups. The Pennsylvania School’s maintenance of a broad practice perspective under Pray’s influence set the stage for the introduction in the 1930’s of the model of social work practice with which the school came increasingly to be identified, the Functional Approach.

The Functional Approach to Social Work Practice

The Functional Approach to social work practice was based on the personality theory of Otto Rank, a member of Freud’s inner circle in Vienna who began to break away from his mentor in the early 1920s. Rank rejected the deterministic Freudian concept that one’s personality is essentially established by events in early childhood. Instead, Rank posited that the basic human struggle, and the source of most individual problems, was the inherent tension between the desire to realize one’s separate and distinct individuality—to move toward growth and change—and the competing wish to remain psychologically connected and dependent upon others, to be cared for, and to retreat from growth and change. Rank also differed from Freud in his recognition of individual difference in the developmental process. His background in the arts and humanities, in contrast to the medical training of Freud and his followers, led Rank to incorporate a broader, more culturally-based perspective on human growth and development into his theoretical framework.

In Rank’s view the force for change had to come from within the individual, from an active, self-assertive Will. The Will refers to the organized, integrated personality engaged in positive, creative action. The therapeutic task, according to Rank, was to strengthen and/or mobilize the Will, which was accomplished through the helping relationship between practitioner and client. This concept of Will is pivotal to empowerment practice. Rank also identified time as a crucial component of the therapeutic process. Establishing a time limit for the helping relationship forced the worker and client to focus on the beginning, middle, and ending of the relationship as an integral part of the client’s growth process. Rank conducted an ongoing series of lectures and courses at the Pennsylvania School between 1924 and his death in 1939.
Taft and Robinson applied Rank’s basic principles of individual psychology and human growth and change to a new theoretical model of social work practice. This new practice theory unfolded slowly during the early 1930’s culminating in Taft’s seminal statement of Functional Practice which appeared as the lead article in the first issue of The Journal of Social Work Process, published by the Pennsylvania School in 1934.

First, in considerable departure from the psychoanalytic model of the clinician as the leader of change, Taft and Robinson’s model emphasized the participatory role of the client in her/his own change process. Client growth and change occurred through mutual recognition of a problem and collaborative work toward its resolution. Second, building on Rank’s perception of time as a crucial variable in the growth process, the Functional Approach identified three specific time phases in the development of the helping relationship – the beginning, middle, and end. Each phase had a specific role and task in the movement toward change. Third, the Functional Approach used agency function as an organizing concept. Society, as represented by the social agency, defined the function and purpose of the social worker’s task. Agency function also established for the client the kind of help that could be offered, the terms on which this help was given, and what was required of the client in return for receiving this help.

Public Social Services

The focus of the Functional Approach on individual empowerment within the limitations of agency function was particularly relevant to the emergence of public social services during the Great Depression of the 1930’s. With its traditional emphasis on understanding the environmental context and applying the model to a variety of client groups, the Pennsylvania School was in a unique position to respond to the demands of this new professional responsibility. Student field units were established in public welfare agencies in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware and public administrators were invited to teach as adjunct professors at the school. As a result, the Functional practice principles were honed in a public context. Consequently, in 1938 the Pennsylvania School of Social Work published its second volume of The Journal of Social Work Process, entitled “Method and Skill in Public Assistance.”

Developments After 1940: Functionalism and Generalist Practice

Since the 1940’s, the basic principles of the Functional Approach have become integral to generalist social work practice throughout the country. Such renowned scholar-teachers as Harold Lewis and Ruth Smalley helped guide students and practitioners to think about the application of these ideas to such diverse areas as group work, casework, administration, and policy. Ironically, very few individuals in the field of social work/social welfare are aware that many generalist social work practice principles emerged out of the rich intellectual legacy of the Pennsylvania School. Virtually all contemporary social work practice texts promote practice approaches that include such Functional principles and values as the client’s right to self-determination, the understanding of individual difference, starting where the client is in the growth process, the evolving nature of client assessment, the importance of relationship in helping, and a recognition that the use of time is an important component of the intervention process. These salient principles continue to shape the present day education and research at Penn and in the field.

Developments After 1970: The Program in Racism

Penn was the first graduate-level school of social work to organize its curriculum around the construct of institutional racism. In 1970, the faculty made a firm commitment to recruit increased numbers of minority group students and faculty, and to incorporate content about the experiences of racial and ethnic minorities in the United States into the curriculum. The content and design of all courses in the MSW program addressed how institutional racism affects policy, program, procedures and practice in the organization and delivery of social services. Penn graduates carry the School commitment to individual and social change, and to expanding equity and fairness for all persons through principles of distributive justice, into their professional human service endeavors. Although social change as a concept was not a specific part of the Functional Approach, the model encouraged incremental change in the client-worker-agency relationship. Penn extended this basic Functional concept to change processes in social groups, focusing also on significant changes in social policy.

The Penn Approach to Social Work Practice Today: Major Principles

Built on this rich history, The Penn Approach reflects ongoing refinement and expansion of the Functional concepts and principles of social work practice within the context of a pluralistic complex and ever-changing society. According to The Penn Approach, the helping process is incomplete unless the social work practitioner engages in a continuous process of planned change to improve the delivery of services and link social resources to the areas of greatest need according to values of distributive justice. These principles apply to the work of Penn practitioners with all client systems: individuals, families, organizations, neighborhoods, and entire communities locally, nationally and globally. They apply equally to the functions of agencies, the functions of social workers as professionals, and functions in social work education.

Nine principles comprise The Penn Approach:

  • Client Empowerment
  • Mutual Respect between Practitioner and Client
  • Attention to Group-Based Social Inequalities
  • A Structured Solution-Focused Process
  • Agency Purpose and Function
  • Planned Social Change
  • Monitoring Change
  • Advocating for the Redistribution of Social Resources
  • Fostering a Climate of Inquiry

PRINCIPLE 1: Client Empowerment

As a consequence of the failure of societal arrangements, many clients confront a variety of persistent and acute problems for which they seek the assistance. The concept of empowerment integrates political, economic and psychosocial perspectives on human needs in the design and implementation of social services. It reflects a positive view of human growth and development, as well as a belief in the capacity of both individuals and the environment to change. The principle of empowerment assumes, therefore, that social work interventions with poor and oppressed persons, in particular, must also address adverse environmental conditions. These changes support development of clients’ capacity to cope and change stressors in their environment.

PRINCIPLE 2: Mutual Respect Between Practitioner and Client

The practitioner begins the helping process by working to build a relationship with the client system that is based on respect, empathy, and trust. The practitioner seeks to maximize issues of equality, reciprocity, and appreciation for diversity. The Functionally-based relationship-building process rests on practitioner knowledge about human growth and development, including the many life span transitions experienced by individuals and families and the social resources that help or hinder human progress. This knowledge is buttressed by the practitioner’s understanding of his/her own development and behavior and respect for the importance of feelings and emotions in growth and change. Mutuality in the relationship-building process focuses on the client’s strengths and assumes that the client is able to engage in a partnership with the practitioner.

PRINCIPLE 3: Challenge to Group-Based Social Inequalities

Knowledge of the group identity of clients is an essential component of the provision of service to individuals. The group perspective enables the practitioner to analyze the environmental factors that adversely affect particular populations in our society, i.e., racism, sexism, ageism, etc. It also allows the practitioner to identify the vital resources, beyond the helping relationship, which must be incorporated into the the client’s intervention. This linkage of individual-group-societal problems rests on three interrelated assumptions. First, the client may be representative of a group that has similar problems and needs. For example, some of the problems and needs of a family with disabled children may be shared by all families with disabled children in the community. Second, the client lives in an environment that may create other problems or exacerbate existing problems for others who share that environment. Third, the client may be the victim of social injustices, such as racism, sexism, or ageism, shared by a larger population within the social service system or community.

The group or population perspective can, therefore, reveal the need for broad-based systemic or policy solutions that will serve the entire population of clients. The social work practitioner has the responsibility to work for the changes necessary to support such solutions. This responsibility includes promoting intra-organizational change, working together with other agencies through collaboratives and coalitions, and advocating for social change in the political arena.

PRINCIPLE 4: A Structured Solution - Focused Intervention

Social work interventions are linked between client systems and the social resources necessary to solve the agreed-upon problem. The helping relationship is based on a structured, solution-focused process. The practitioner’s role is to help the client use existing strengths and new knowledge and experience to accomplish the desired change. The process is time-limited, with a beginning, middle, and end, and applies equally to single or multiple meetings and to work in all client system arenas. A similar process pertains to social group work, community development work, planned social change, and political action.

Beginning: The process begins with the development of a shared understanding of client problems, needs, and feelings, and the development of a common language for discussing them. The focus is on client self-determination, whereby the practitioner helps the client to partialize the problems into manageable components.

Middle: The middle phase focuses on identifying client strengths and resources and on developing specific service plans and programs to meet the identified needs. In developing a range of options that leads to greater independence, the practitioner recognizes that the goal is full client involvement in decision-making and action.

End: The solution-focused process concludes with a joint evaluation of the progress made in problem solving and a conscious identification of the client system’s new capacities. The practitioner and client work together to design a follow-up strategy that will enable the client to sustain a new level of competency in using personal and community resources to meet future needs.

PRINCIPLE 5: Agency Purpose and Function

According to Functional principles, the social work helping process occurs under the auspices of a social agency that represents the institutional expression of a community’s concern for its collective well-being. In this paradigm, an agency becomes an organization that works with people, community programs, government, schools, etc. The mission of a social service agency and its specific mandates, services and functions provide the content, focus, and direction for the interaction between social work practitioner and client system. Agency functions evolve over time to meet the changing needs of clients and communities. These needs may be expressed through public policy or identified through ongoing assessment of community needs and agency performance. Changes in agency functions, needs of clients, and social work practice are reciprocally influential.

The social work practitioner must be an active participant in the design of accountability systems to ensure the maintenance of social work ethics and professional practice principles, and to assist the agency in serving client needs.

PRINCIPLE 6: Planned Social Change

New challenges in the provision of services requires planned changed, i.e., efforts with multiple agencies, community organizations, and governmental policies. Such expansion pertains particularly to needs arising from increased privatization of social agencies, decentralization of responsibility for the social welfare of individuals and groups, and increased application of business principles to service providers. In the words of former Dean Kenneth Pray: “Social work, as a profession, necessarily involves and includes social action as a professional function… as both an individual and a collective responsibility.” Therefore, the Functional principles of cooperation, mutuality, dedication to universal social well being, and the interrelationship of individual and social need apply both to clinical practice and to work with organizations and organized forces of social change and control in the larger community.

PRINCIPLE 7: Monitoring Change

The social work practitioner works for planned change within the social service system as part of a continuous effort to link social resources to needs. Planned change grows out of accountability and other monitoring and evaluation activities through which practitioners document and asses agency programs.

These accountability systems provide information on service efficiency and effectiveness, link expenditures to specific client needs and services, and help social service agencies and other organizations delivering social welfare services justify expenditures to taxpayers and donors.

The social work practitioner brings a process orientation to the practice of social work in all forms of intervention and all settings. This assumes that the client system, the worker, the agency, and the external environment are constantly changing and interacting with each other. Clients change as they acquire new skills and additional resources to deal with situations in their lives. Practitioners continuously evolve as individuals and skilled professionals as a consequence of practice experience, staff development, training, supervision, and formal education. Social service agencies change in response to demands for new services, changes in the composition of client and constituent populations, and changes in social policy, financial support, and staff. The external environment, particularly the policy arena, changes as a result of political and economic developments and ideological shifts.

PRINCIPLE 8: Advocating for the Redistribution of Social Resources

The social work practitioner monitors and documents these processes in order to gather the data necessary to make the case for change at the individual, group, organization, community, state, national, and global level.

Monitoring and evaluation activities provide vital information in the following ways:

  • they identify service gaps and areas for improvement;
  • they assess the effectiveness and efficiency of new approaches to improve or expand existing services;
  • they insure that the agency follows its legal and professional mandates and serves clients effectively in complex and diverse situations;
  • they identify professional development needs among staff and assist agency development of programs to update professional competence; and
  • they enable practitioners to engage in advocacy for necessary policy and program changes.

The social work practitioner must go beyond the agency to link social resources with client needs. Global economic developments, major policy shifts, and increasing competition for social service dollars heighten the importance of practitioner efforts to identify unmet needs and the unequal distribution of resources and power within the community. Consequently, the social worker often advocates for the realignment or redistribution of existing resources and for the development of new social resources. Such advocacy involves the practitioner in educating the community about the impact of discriminatory policies, programs, and practices, as well as about the importance of investing in children, families, jobs, health care, child care, and housing to prevent the emergence and spread of social problems. Such advocacy also involves the practitioner in ongoing activities to influence public opinion and change legislation and other forms of public policy that affect the delivery of services to clients.

PRINCIPLE 9: Fostering a Climate of Inquiry

Continuous development of theory, practice, and applied research is essential for social work professionals to respond to the complex human service issues of today. The practitioner needs to foster a spirit of inquiry within the practice of social work and the profession as a whole. Such inquiry directs the practitioner to assess the ways research influences practice methodologies, evaluate service delivery and program effectiveness, to search for more effective methods of service and coordination, to identify and test new service approaches, and to recommend directions and directives for policy change. Rather than a set “prescription” for practice action, The Penn Approach provides a framework for inquiry, evaluation, and accountability that is continuous, creative, and directed at constructive and responsible individual and social change.

The Penn Approach: Beyond the Year 2005

The Penn Approach will continue to expand upon these nine principles to meet the societal needs of the 21st Century. Social workers have long understood that neither individual nor environmental change efforts, in isolation, is sufficient to enhance clients’ well-being or to change social policies that fail to address clients’ needs adequately. The Penn School of Social Policy & Practice’s history of service to oppressed, disadvantaged, and vulnerable people will be reflected in its continuing commitment to eradicating social and economic inequalities.

Toward these ends, the Penn School of Social Policy & Practice offers a curriculum that integrates the development of practice skills with research, the study of specific social problems and social policies, theories and methods of social change, knowledge about human relationships, and individual and societal responses to institutional racism and other “-isms.” Students learn to analyze and intervene in complex individual and social issues using both interpersonal and systemic perspectives to address people’s problems.

The Penn Approach continues to prepare social workers to meet the changing service and professional needs at the local, national, and global level. These needs include: 1) the ability to understand and practice in the environment of managed care and increased privatization of services; 2) knowledge about and skills in case management; 3) knowledge about and skills in program planning and development; 4) knowledge about the creation and maintenance of community and social support networks; 5) knowledge about the provision of social skills training for clients; 6) understanding of the needs of racially and ethnically diverse client populations and appreciation of the significance of cultural differences in the development of helping strategies; 7) knowledge about the creative use of modern technologies in enhancing service provision; and 8) knowledge about skilled management of human service organizations. Penn social workers also learn how to work with organizations, neighborhoods, informal social networks, and government to access and mobilize increasingly scarce resources for clients, and to influence social and economic policies to improve the quality of life all members of society.

In addition, future social workers will be asked to demonstrate skills in service evaluation and accountability. The managed care environment, with its emphasis on cost containment, limited resources, and service-contracting practices, will create ongoing concerns about the effectiveness, efficiency, and productivity of services. These concerns will be reflected in greater emphasis on measuring the impact of services, the creation of more elaborate information systems, and the use of electronic data management. Future social workers in all agency settings will need to master increasingly complex procedures in accounting, budget monitoring, using data in decision-making, and evaluation of practice and program outcomes. The Penn Approach prepares professionals to integrate data on the outcomes of service provision with program/agency evaluation processes.

At the same time, social workers at all levels will be increasingly engaged in program and fiscal activities that once were thought to be the sole province of agency administrators. Diverse and innovative approaches to fund raising and resource development, identification of new service needs, building programs with new consumer groups, formulating proposals, and negotiation of contracts are just some of the activities that will become more characteristic of future practice. Strategic planning for long-term agency development will become central to all levels of practice as agencies move to reduce some of the uncertainty with which they are confronted. Increasing privatization may create entrepreneurial opportunities in social welfare as well.

All of these developments reflect ongoing changes in the nature of social work practice that The Penn Approach will address. For example, social workers in the child welfare and health systems increasingly are engaged in determining which clients are most in need and most at risk so that agencies can establish service priorities and target their limited resources more effectively. Social workers increasingly will be employed in settings that address a broad spectrum of issues for clients and the workplace. Family and group practice sites will need new programs and practice modalities to reflect the increasing racial and cultural diversity of our nation.

To prepare graduates to serve within changing paradigms, the Penn social work program remains dedicated to generating new models of intervention in order to deliver the most effective and efficient practices at individual, family, community, organizational, and global levels. Finely honed assessment skills will be even more critical in this context. Education in short-term models of practice is essential. Knowledge about economics, law, politics, individual and group behavior, international relations, and social policy will form the foundation for clinical and community practice alike. As social work is a multi-disciplinary profession, students at Penn are encouraged to structure their professional education across related disciplines in the University. This breadth, in conjunction with the strength, vision, and expertise of the administration, faculty, and staff of the Penn School of Social Policy & Practice, provides graduates with the professional competence and vision they will need for social work practice in today’s global society.