ASWB: Grandparenting In Social Work Licensure Harms the Public

To be fair to Dr. Kim, who produced the well-researched keynote, that is not how she frames the issue! I think that her interpretation of the scientific evidence is less plausible than the one I outline below. I will walk you through why Dr. Kim’s analysis proves ASWB’s main talking point–that exams protect the public–is based on fairy dust.

Dr. Kim was the recipient of ASWB’s previous round of grant funding for regulatory research. Her research produced the most comprehensive scientific survey of social work licensure to date, and the scholarship that ASWB produced was objective and fair. It must be emphasized, though, that the interpretation of those facts supports ASWB’s existing talking points and policy positions.

Dr. Kim’s literature review was extensive–spanning over 400 articles related to social work and occupational licensure (ASWB, 2022). It should be noted that from her early literature review, ASWB established a “bleak” reality:

“While some conceptual discussions on social work regulations were documented in the literature, there is very little documentation and research on specific regulatory practices in social work.” In other words, the reality was much bleaker than ASWB expected.

(ASWB, 2022 para. 2)

*alarm bells ringing*

Not great when the regulatory body describes the evidence for its regulations as…bleak. Maybe maintaining this open secret isn’t great for the profession, and we should instead fight to establish evidence-based regulations. Or maybe at least ensure that the current regulations don’t further stratify the profession by class, race, age, disability, and culture?

As part of their final products delivered to ASWB under the grant, Dr. Kim produced a comprehensive literature summary and recommendations for future research. I encourage you to watch her keynote speech (via Vimeo) or read the text of her keynote in its entirety. You should judge for yourself how well the evidence supports arguments of public protection. Don’t take as gospel my argument that regulations instead protect the social and economic capital of established practitioners and bosses.

So, how does ASWB interpret the “bleak” lack of research supporting its regulatory practices? If you guessed clinging onto any supporting citation like it’s the last handle on a life raft, you’d be right!

ASWB and Dr. Kim conclude that examinations protect the public based on a dissertation (Kinderknecht, 1995) which analyzed 252 social work ethics complaints in Kansas from 1980-1995. That’s it!

That’s…a lot of explanatory power attributed to one study. Let’s dive in into Kim’s summary!

The author examined ethical complaints filed against 252 social workers in the State of Kansas Behavioral Sciences Regulatory Board since the inception of 1980 with 15 years of data to identify social workers’ characteristics related to substantiated complaints. This study is critical because the sample included 55 grandfathered social workers who obtained licensure without taking a national standardized licensure exam. The analyses found that licensees who had taken the licensure exam were twice as likely to have unsubstantiated complaints than those who became licensed without the exam. The author concluded that whether or not licensed social workers were examined for licensure is related to the complaint outcomes. Kinderknecht’s finding may provide the only available evidence supporting the use of a standardized licensure exam as part of licensure requirements. It is the only empirical study beyond simply describing the type and prevalence of complaints and violations, examining factors related to the substantiation of ethical violations. (emphasis added)

Kim, 2023, p. 11-12

We know licensing exams protect the public based solely on this dissertation, according to ASWB and Dr. Kim. Indeed, ASWB paid a lot of money for a very good researcher to find any scientific evidence that supports licensing exams protecting the public–the core argument ASWB makes–and they found this one thing in a bleak and almost empty evidence-base. I had previously looked into the evidence supporting licensure and regulation of social work practice and didn’t find much. I am heartened to hear that my literature search skills are not as bad as I thought! Here, a grant-funded, accomplished, and tenured researcher cannot find but one dissertation.

As you can tell from the highlights I made, this study more accurately states that grandparenting social workers who are unqualified or unexamined into new regulations endangers clients. Yet, ASWB’s advocacy agenda explicitly supports grandparenting (a.k.a. grandfathering), exceptions to new regulations for existing providers. ASWB publicly supported grandparenting unexamined social workers into the licensure compact, but forces all new social workers (even if their states don’t require it!) to sit for an ASWB examination to receive an interstate license. ASWB’s Model Practice Act includes grandparenting. Yet, according to the one study that has ever examined the relationship between grandparenting and public protection that ASWB can find, this is a manifestly unethical decision.

Well, either that…or by mystical convenience… the explanatory power of this study applies to a totally separate population… only those entering the profession. Why are those entering the profession the only ones who lose in regulatory changes? Due to interest convergence, ASWB is effectively a lobbying group for those who have already achieved full licensure. It is in the narrow self-interest of protected practitioners for ASWB’s examinations to continue to practice without examination, and for the barriers to licensure to be as high an inequitable as possible to protect their income. While it is not their primary motivation, it is difficult to interpret innocuously arguments about how unexamined social workers will diminish professional standing when they don’t account for grandparented social workers who never took the exam. It is new entrants who are going to change the current reputation of the profession, which includes whatever reputational loss comes from not holding grandparenting practitioners to ever-increasing education, supervision, and examination requirements imposed on new practitioners.

Social work has never been shy about the self-interest at the heart of occupational licensure (and title protection). The purpose is to–in the absence of unions (sigh)–raise the income of practitioners. Indeed, Dr. Kim’s (2022) final study for ASWB demonstrated that licensed social workers earn a higher income premium from licensure than unlicensed practitioners. This is why you will see ASWB allying with the Clinical Social Work Association–a professional society of LCSWs–to protect the status quo in which the LBSW, LMSW, and LCSW exams make it ever more difficult for people to enter the profession of social work.

Yet, when that same study finds that there is a $110 earning premium for all social workers because of licensure, I find that hard to reconcile with these facts:

  1. In 2012, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found the median annual salary for all social workers to be $47,370.
  2. In 2015, the National Association of Social Workers’ workforce study found the median annual salary for a graduate-trained social worker to be $48,000.
  3. In 2021, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found the median annual wage for social workers to be $50,390.

I am not seeing the earnings premium from licensure here.

Finally, I just want to close out on some other very important flaws in using Kinderknecht’s dissertation to support the nearly 500,000 social work examinations given in the past 11 years. First, it should be noted that Dr. Kinderknecht framed this as a “pilot study” and explicitly envisioned future multi-state studies on ethical complaints that could provide greater explanatory power. Second, the education that social workers received in 1980 is far different from what they receive in 2023. Third, the diversity of the sample is not outlined in Dr. Kinderknecht’s dissertation, making it difficult to generalize to all social workers. Most importantly, the dissertation uses univariate and bivariate analyses, which do not control for any confounding factors (third variables) that might explain the connection between grandfathered social workers and ethics complaints. For example, these connections could be due to differences in how social workers were educated, not examined. Although Kinderknecht measured potentially confounding variables, she did not conduct any of those analyses. This is not a criticism of the rigor in Dr. Kinderknecht’s study or her communication. She is forthcoming about the limitations of her study and what a more comprehensive study might reveal about the relationship. It’s a great dissertation, and I wish we had more like it!

One thing that everyone agrees on (me, Dr. Kinderknecht, Dr. Kim, ASWB): We need a stronger evidence base for social work regulations to make informed policy decisions. I think we disagree about what the ethical path forward is from here. Our regulatory policy is fundamentally broken in a way that devastates aspiring practitioner’s ability to provide culturally responsive and evidence-based practice.

%d bloggers like this: