August 1997 // Volume 35 // Number 4 // Feature Articles // 4FEA1

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Perceptions of County Faculty of the Professional Development Needs Of Specialists

State specialists provide vital linkage between local clientele and new technological developments in most state Extension systems. The purpose of this study was to identify critical professional development needs of specialists as perceived by county directors. Fifty-nine of Florida's 67 county Extension directors completed a survey instrument designed to identify critical needs.

Matt Baker
Assistant Professor
Department of Agricultural Education and Communication
Internet Address:

Heisil Villalobos
Graduate Student
University of Florida
Gainesville, Florida

Studies reveal that specialists are among the major information sources consulted by county faculty (Radhakrishna & Thomson, 1996; Shih & Evans, 1991). Approximately 44% of the total personnel within Extension are specialists typically located in academic departments along with teaching and research faculty (Vines & Anderson, 1976). Effective specialists must understand the Extension education process (Gibson & Hillison, 1994).

Experts contend that budget reductions have negatively impacted the manner in which specialists perform their roles (Bartholomew, 1993; Gibson & Hillison, 1994). Such change can result in ambiguous responsibilities and roles, and cause disagreement as to the specific jobs of staff members. This creates the need for a continuous redefinition of Extension staff roles (Carroll, 1989).

Specialists often have dual appointments in research or teaching. This increases the uncertainty surrounding the roles of specialists (Wallace, 1982; Feller, 1984). While an important function of a land-grant system is to generate relevant technologies for farmers, the employee reward system mostly favors refereed research publications more than Extension programming support (Eponou, 1993).

The process of personnel development includes both informal and formal approaches to personnel effectiveness improvement. Development involves all activities aimed at improvement and growth in an individual's ability to perform assignments effectively. The need for personnel development programs is a continuous process for all personnel, and is closely related to institutional changes. Faculty must have a clear perception of what is expected of them in Extension. As a result, needs must be continuously assessed in order to provide meaningful staff development programs (Castetter, 1981). The purpose of this study was to determine the critical professional development needs of state specialists in the Florida Cooperative Extension Service (FCES).


The population for this descriptive study was all county directors in the FCES (N=67). A population census was utilized for data collection. The instrument consisted of 28 Likert-type statements measuring the following constructs: (a) Research Generation and Synthesis, (b) Program Development and Evaluation, and (c) Communication and Presentation. Participants were asked to respond to both the importance of ability and the degree to which current state specialists possessed the ability. In addition, several questions regarding demographic characteristics were included.

After the initial instrument development, an expert panel of state specialists, administrators, and district directors was used to establish face and content validity of the instrument. Cronbach's alpha reliability coefficients for the constructs ranged from r = 0.80 to r = 0.82. The packet was initially mailed to the 67 county directors on March 29, 1996. A total of 59 instruments were returned, resulting in a response rate of 88%.

Descriptive statistics consisting of means, standard deviations, percentages, and frequencies were used to describe the population. Critical needs were determined based upon the use of a matrix analysis as recommended by Witkin (1984). Grand means of importance and current abilities were calculated for each of the three constructs. A two-dimensional graph was then developed for each of the three constructs. Grand means were then plotted on a two-dimensional graph, resulting in the creation of four quadrants. Mean importance and current abilities for each ability within a construct were then plotted on the graph. Each individual ability was subsequently assigned into one of the four quadrants: (a) High-Level Successful Abilities (high levels of importance and obtainment), (b) Low-Level Successful Abilities (low levels of importance and high levels of obtainment), (c) Low -Level Needs (low levels of importance and obtainment), and (d) Critical Needs (high levels of importance and low levels of obtainment). The data were analyzed using the SPSS/PC+ statistical program.


County directors had been employed in Extension for an average of 16 years (M=16.02, SD=8.34), and had served as a county director for about 10 of those years (M=9.59, SD=7.10). Although the county directors represented five academic program areas, about 70% had academic backgrounds in Agriculture, 14% in Family and Consumer Science, and 9% in 4-H/Youth Development.

When asked to rank program areas in which county directors and their faculty had the greatest interaction with state specialists, Agriculture was ranked first, followed by Family and Consumer science, and 4-H/Youth Development. A great deal of variability was found between counties in terms of the number of state specialists involved in delivering county programs in the previous one-year time period (M=13.48, SD=15.26). Over 10% reported that state specialists were involved in 30 or more programs per year, while 59% revealed that state specialists were used in only 10 programs or less.

The matrix analysis used to assess needs resulted in categorizing the specific abilities (Likert-type statements) into four areas: (1) Critical Needs, (2) Low-Level Needs, (3) High- Level Successful Abilities, and (4) Low-Level Successful Abilities. Data reveals that in terms of research generation and synthesis, the ability to collaborate with county faculty in conducting demonstrations was identified as a critical need. In addition, the following low-level needs surfaced: (1) the ability to communicate client problems to researchers, and (2) the ability to view problems from different perspectives.

The following four critical needs emerged for the construct of program development and evaluation: (a) the ability to understand the needs of clients, (b) the ability to produce appropriate educational programming materials, (c) the ability to deliver appropriate in-service training to county faculty, and (d) the ability to evaluate state major programs. In addition, the following low-level needs were identified: (a) the ability to assist county faculty in planning programs, (b) the ability to identify funding sources for program development, and (c) the ability to assist county faculty in obtaining funding.

The findings indicate that only one critical need surfaced in the communication and presentation construct. The critical need was the ability to travel to counties at state expense. The following low-level needs also were discovered: (a) the ability to incorporate innovative teaching techniques into programs, (b) the ability to provide research summaries suitable for county newsletters, and (c) the ability to develop information on electronic data bases for county faculty distribution.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Participating county directors in this study could be described as experienced administrators primarily with agricultural backgrounds. They reported that many state specialists in agriculture are involved in county programming decisions.

Six critical professional development state specialists needs were identified as a result of this study. Four of the six related to program development and evaluation. County directors perceive that state specialists need assistance in understanding client needs. There appears to be a communication breakdown between client needs and the ability of specialists to provide leadership in addressing those needs. County directors also perceive that state specialists need assistance in understanding their role in the programming process, especially as it relates to materials development, delivering inservice training, and evaluating state major programs.

In addition, county directors identified critical needs related to the specialist's ability to collaborate with county faculty in conducting demonstrations and expenses related to travel. It appears that the county-level administrators who were surveyed would like to see more local presence from specialists. This may be reflective of budgetary problems in that specialist activities are budgeted at the departmental level. However, in this system, state-level programming is approached from an interdisciplinary design team perspective, where specialists with a broad range of backgrounds typically work together with representatives from counties to plan major state programs. Specialists have voiced a concern that effective programming happens as a result of design team planning, implementation, and evaluation, and that design teams should be provided a budget, rather than department chairs controlling the Extension budget.

County directors perceived that state specialists were very successful in nine areas. Broadly speaking, the successful areas involved the ability to utilize the research base in solving problems, interfacing with industry groups, and communication skills. It is clear that these findings should be factored into the equation when developing professional development programs for state specialists. It is not known how the perceptions of county directors will differ from county faculty and state specialists.


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