Fall 1990 // Volume 28 // Number 3 // Research in Brief // 3RIB1

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Perceptions of Paraprofessional Effectiveness


James C. Edwards
Extension Rural Development Specialist
Florida A & M University-Tallahassee

Irwin Jahns
Professor, Adult Education
Florida State University-Tallahassee

The study was done to determine if there were differences in perceptions and expectations of paraprofessionals and supervising professionals on how tasks and responsibilities are actually and ideally performed by paraprofessionals working with low-income rural residents in Florida. Role theory provided the basis from which the conceptual framework was developed.

The Study

This study surveyed 116 paraprofessionals and 14 Extension agents employed to conduct the University of Florida Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program and 21 paraprofessionals and two Extension agents employed to conduct Florida A & M nutrition programs.

To conduct the study, a questionnaire was developed that included a checklist of 38 tasks developed for each of the three roles using a format adapted from Gardner's study on the role of staff and program development coordinators in Florida's Community Colleges.1 Extension agents and paraprofessionals were asked to respond to questions addressing role expectations (ideals) and role perceptions (actual).

The questionnaire was mailed to two groups: 16 supervising agents and 137 paraprofessionals employed by the Florida Extension Service. Two weeks later, a follow-up of nonrespondents was done. Seventy-three percent (82) of the paraprofessionals and 94% of the professionals (15) responded.


The data revealed no major differences between the perceptions of paraprofessionals and supervising professionals on the majority of actual tasks being performed by the paraprofessionals. This was substantiated by the low number of tasks where differences were significant at the .05 level. The data showed no differences between the two groups on nine of 11 reactive, six of the 10 proactive, and 14 of the 17 administrative tasks. Therefore, we concluded considerable consensus exists between perceptions of supervising professionals and paraprofessionals on the actual tasks being performed by paraprofessionals. However, in those instances where differences were found in perceptions, conflict or at least confusion existed in performance of the role.

Further analysis revealed modest differences between paraprofessionals' and supervising professionals' expectations on how paraprofessionals should ideally perform the majority of tasks. The data revealed no differences between the two groups on nine of 11 reactive, eight of the 10 proactive, and seven of 17 ideal administrative tasks. Differences were found at the .05 level between expectations on two reactive, two proactive, and seven administrative tasks.

These differences in expectations of ideal paraprofessionals performance reveal some conflict or confusion between the two groups on the tasks that should ideally be performed.

Differences in perceptions of ideal administrative tasks were: consult with agents on maintaining demonstration projects, select advisory committees, maintain office hours, develop policies, and accept full responsibility for the program. All the paraprofessionals considered the performance of the seven tasks as more important than did their supervising professionals. In contrast, differences were found on only two of the ideal reactive tasks and on two of the ideal proactive tasks.

These findings suggest there's conflict or confusion about the paraprofessionals' role in performing these administrative tasks. Differences in perceptions may be due to differences in understanding, poor communications, or inadequate training.

Responses to questions pertaining to personal characteristics revealed that paraprofessionals and supervising agents were predominantly female (94%) and ranged from 31-60 years old. Overall, 63% were black, 26% white, and eight percent other; 50% had been employed more than 10 years.

Ninety percent of the professionals and paraprofessionals reported being satisfied with paraprofessionals' knowledge of the position, with the skills they needed to perform their jobs, and with their personal qualifications related to the position. Slightly over 80% of the paraprofessionals and professionals reported that paraprofessionals were important in bringing about changes or improvements in the county Extension program.

Paraprofessionals play an important role in Extension. Their effectiveness can be increased when actual performance matches mutual ideal expectations.


1. W. A. Gardner, "The Role of the Staff and Program Development Coordination in Florida's Public Community Colleges" (Ph.D. dissertation, Florida State University, Tallahassee, 1980).