Ken Trump has spent decades counseling school districts about safety, appearing on TV news shows, and speaking at large conferences, cementing his reputation as a national expert on school shootings.
And yet last year, as he pondered ways to have more impact on a heart-rending issue that continues to defy solutions, Trump wondered if he was doing enough. As more and more K-12 school administrators expressed their frustrations about relating safety issues to parents and others, Trump decided to take a bold sidestep away from his work in the field: He applied to Johns Hopkins School of Education’s online EdD program.
“Principals and superintendents struggle over how to communicate all these challenges and tragic events, or even the prospect of them, to parents who may be irrational about solutions,” says Trump, 54, who entered the Hopkins program in Fall 2017. “And it’s only gotten worse.”
To help educational professionals develop strong, sensible messages about school shootings, Trump wanted to add ballast to the knowledge he had gleaned from the field. “I thought an EdD would take my work to the next level, make my research more valuable, and make my advocacy more effective,” he says.
To double-check that notion, he called Christine Eith, an assistant professor at the School of Education, and asked her, “Am I crazy to want to do this?” Trump recalls.
Eith, a former statistician at the Department of Justice, had caught Trump’s eye because of her investigations into school violence and the value of relationships between faculty and students in preventing it. He found a kindred spirit, one who would go on to recruit him into the online program, which out-battled one at the University of Southern California.
“She convinced me that there was someone there who understood where I was and where I’d come from,” Trump says. “It looked like the right fit.”
The “Problem of Practice”
Given Trump’s lofty professional stature, one might think he would make an odd match for an EdD program. Why gild the lily by adding an advanced degree—one that requires the completion of 54 credits and takes three, sometimes four years to finish—to a career that is already exceptional?
And yet, Trump is exactly the type of candidate the School of Education tries to draw in.
“Ken fits the profile,” says Stephen Pape, a professor of education and former director of the Hopkins online EdD program. “We look for the seasoned professional who can articulate and substantiate a problem. Our admission criteria is clear in seeking out people who understand their particular issue and have dealt with it in their work.”
The online program, started five years ago, gives established professionals from all over the world the chance to examine an important issue in education in the context of their practice. And by casting the intellectual net just as widely, the Hopkins EdD reaches people who want to explore a kaleidoscopic range of issues. Doing so makes the program stronger, says Pape, and creates synergy.
Candidates like Trump are especially valuable because they can offer ideas to other students—ones they can consider using as they continue their work in the field. “People reach out to Ken for his expertise,” Pape adds. “Like a lot of our candidates, he hasn’t taken a typical pathway to get here and has learned new things because of it. There are school principals and others who really want to tap his knowledge.”
Trump’s problem of practice, or PoP, involves helping school leaders navigate through a thicket of “ambiguity, complexity, and deep uncertainty” before, during, and after school-violence events so they can communicate crises clearly, he says. Solid research is especially needed in an age when social media threats and rumors can make messages even harder to control, he says.
Other students have similarly novel approaches to their PoPs—the central questions that animate their dissertations-in-practice—Pape says. They range from finding ways to deal with disparities in student mental-health services in New York City to improving retention rates among Black and Latino community college students across the U.S. Because the program allows students to examine their problem within the context of their courses, they are much less likely to lose focus as they progress on their dissertation from year to year, says Trump.
Collaborating at a Distance
The program’s flavor is international. In addition to featuring students from almost every state in the U.S., the program’s 200-student cohort includes professionals from Bahrain, Egypt, India, Japan, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and a former chief executive from IBM in South Africa. They study issues such as how students learn to solve informational problems in Arabian Gulf colleges or how the cognitive development of immigrant adolescents affects learning.
Some students don’t use English as a first language, but all students take classes in English via learning management systems and video conferencing apps, such as Zoom.
“The lack of a physical presence can be a challenge,” adds Eith. “You don’t always have people sitting in front of you. You don’t see that look people get when they don’t understand a concept or know what’s going on, so you can change your approach.”
Because coursework is completed online, some students can feel disconnected, Pape concedes. “But the program works for students because they can complete their degrees in their own time, whether it’s at two in the morning or four in the morning on a weekend,” he adds. “Having that flexibility is important to a working professional.”
To connect students, the program offers a three-day summer orientation/residency in Baltimore every July. It has proven popular. This year, 71 out of 75 entering doctoral candidates plan to attend. “The students have asked us for it,” says Pape. “They want to meet these people who they’ll be engaging with online. Doing this helps us keep more of them in the program.”
Once they start with classes, students voluntarily meet with each other every Saturday via virtual sites and by mobile means, such as WhatsApp and Facebook, to create communities of practice. Faculty members encourage them to meet with others in their regions. Some even meet face to face, Pape reports.
Trump lauds the connections he has made with other students, including one who serves as an outreach program executive for Disney Theatrical Productions, and is researching the best ways to bring theater to inner-city schools.
The student cohort functions as a social support system, Trump says. He frequently gets ideas from others on how to research topics and what kinds of papers are available.
“I often get more from my fellow students remotely than I would if we were in a classroom together for an hour,” he says.
Connecting Kindred Spirits
But the richest value of the program for him is the relationship Trump has with Eith, his mentor.
“Chrissy is a godsend and a perfect match for my dissertation,” says Trump, who studies from his home just outside Cleveland. He started working on school security issues as a middle-school student there, helping school leaders type up federally mandated reports on school violence. Since 1997, he has run his own consulting firm on school security and emergency preparedness.
“Her research interests are aligned 100 percent with my PoP. Other people in the program tell me the same thing, that they’re very well matched to their mentors,” Trump adds.
Trump and Eith will contact each other once or twice a week by e-mail, phone call, or text. They will discuss his dissertation work, including how Trump is constructing its theoretical framework and whether what his research is telling him jibes with his field experience.
Now set to start the second year of the three-year EdD, Trump continues to explore ways to develop best practices in risk and crisis communications at schools—in between regular trips to school districts dealing with violence or looking to improve their emergency plans, or to serve as an expert witness in the ongoing case surrounding the Sandy Hook massacre.
“He spends a lot of time on the road,” says Eith. “His unpredictable and demanding schedule could derail other students. Ken just takes it in stride.”
Trump adds that his mission—to dispel myths about school security needs—keeps him moving toward his degree.
“Chrissy tells me I’m living my dissertation by taking all these trips,” Trump says.
“But I have to build beyond that, and beyond my coursework. The central task for me is to surround my PoP to the point where I can give administrators the best advice on how they can be honest and transparent. That’s what drives me.”
Ken Trump offering expert testimony before a House committee on education
Christine Eith at the 2017 EdD summer residency
Stephen Pape at the 2017 EdD summer residency