New dean charts a fresh course for Johns Hopkins School of Education

Christopher Morphew joined JHU Aug. 1 from University of Iowa College of Education

Christopher Morphew laughs

Image caption: Christopher Morphew joined Johns Hopkins University on Aug. 1 as the dean of the School of Education.

Christopher C. Morphew, the new dean of the School of Education, admits he's had precious few moments to press pause since joining Johns Hopkins on Aug. 1. But this self-proclaimed "higher ed junky" says he's enjoying the steep learning curve.

And he's not starting from scratch. As executive associate dean for research and innovation at the University of Iowa College of Education since 2014, Morphew oversaw a rapid, record-setting expansion of sponsored research. He introduced new collaborative efforts between the college and faculty members elsewhere in the university aimed at, among other things, an interdisciplinary approach to understanding human development and learning. Before Iowa, Morphew was on the faculty at the University of Kansas and then the University of Georgia, where he coordinated the graduate program at the Institute of Higher Education.

"I come in with a lot of experience from three big public flagship universities, but I've been intentional not to be too quick to say that 'I understand this' or 'I know how to solve this.' ... I'm trying to sit down and listen to people. I need to figure how this place works."
Christopher Morphew
Dean, School of Education

His own research focuses on higher education, including college and university missions, state policy, and marketing and communications. He received his PhD in social sciences and educational practices from Stanford University in 1996, and he holds master's degrees from Stanford and from the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. He is a 1990 graduate of the University of Notre Dame.

Johns Hopkins has offered teacher education since 1909, but the School of Education was established as a standalone division of the university in 2007. The school has about 130 full-time faculty members and 2,400 students. Its mission is to train teachers and school leaders, produce leading education scholars, and foster research that leads to evidence-based improvements in American pre-K-12 education. The school's research and development work includes the Center for Research and Reform in Education, the Center for Social Organization of Schools, the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy, and the Center for Technology in Education. One of the school's prominent community outreach efforts is administration and operation of the Henderson-Hopkins K-8 public school and Weinberg Early Childhood Center in East Baltimore.

The Hub recently sat down with Morphew in his office to talk about his work at Johns Hopkins to date. The conversation veered from barn demolition to unconventional modes of transportation, from the school's identity and future to the state of K-12 education in America today.

Where are you from originally?

Iowa. I grew up in a small town called Estherville, on a 30-acre farm. Right next to our acreage was a cemetery where Esther Ridley (1832-1918) was buried. This is who Estherville was named after. I believe it says on her grave something like: The first woman to have a baby in Emmet County. Even as a child when I saw that grave I would think to myself, she couldn't have been the first woman to have a baby in Emmet County. There were a lot of people here before her, one would think. But anyway, that's its namesake. Population of 6,000 or so now. I moved there when I was 5 and left when I when I was 18. I came back when I was 40, and left again.

My parents were schoolteachers, so they had summers off, basically. They had to supplement their income with other things. My mom had a big garden. We had a whole zoo of animals to take care of. At one point I had a horse. We had ducks and geese. We had chickens, and a llama at one point. Not sure why, but we did.

My dad and his best friend would tear down barns in the summer. Sounds like an odd thing to do, but in Iowa there are a lot of old barns. Many are in some state of disrepair, but the quality of the wood is amazing. People want to use this wood for other things. So my dad and his buddy would climb on top of these barns and, board by board, they would take them down. Then they'd sell the wood.

You can say we're somewhat defined by our primary school years. This lays the foundation of who we'll become. What was K-12 education like for you in Iowa?

I went to public school. There weren't any other options. It was interesting. Since my parents were teachers, mostly everybody in town knew us. School was good. Looking back, it might not have been the most challenging environment in the world. There weren't things like AP courses. There wasn't an active gifted and talented program. So maybe it could get boring at times. But I had a lot of good teachers who made an impression.

You've been here at Johns Hopkins since Aug. 1. Give me a quick summary of what you've been up to.

I've been in this room listening to a lot of people telling me what they do, who they are, and how this place works. Frankly, I've been trying to meet with anyone who will speak with me.

Christopher Morphew

Image caption: Christopher Morphew

Let me correct that. I haven't been only in this room. I've been down at the medical campus four times. I've been at the Mount Washington campus. I've been to the Columbia campus, and the Homewood campus a few times. I've met with [JHU Provost] Sunil [Kumar] at R. House [in Remington] for our monthly meeting with the provost.

I come in with a lot of experience from three big public flagship universities, but I've been intentional not to be too quick to say that 'I understand this,' or 'I've seen this problem before and I know how to solve this.' We all have these biases, and I'm trying really hard not to let mine shape my thinking about things. I'm trying to sit down and listen to people. I need to figure how this place works. We're coming in with some challenges. It's still a young school. It's immature, not in the pejorative sense, but in that it's still trying to find its identity. But we have some world-class stuff going on, and we've done really well in the rankings.

Interesting that you've made four trips to the medical campus already. Tell me about your relationship with those schools and their deans.

Sure. These meetings were good. [Pauses] Did you park in the lot in back? I have an orange 300cc scooter that I brought with me.

Wait, you have an orange scooter?

Yes. I love riding it. It makes getting in to work fun. It's efficient. It's easy.

The reason I bring it up is that I've taken it down to the medical campus, and downtown, and my assistant is worried. She's like, 'You're taking it where?' But to answer your previous question, the reason I've been down to the medical campus so many times is, one, we have the Henderson-Hopkins School in East Baltimore, and I've taken a tour of the school. Henderson-Hopkins will certainly be a priority for us.

But another thing, a big reason I came here is the chance to collaborate. I've had great meetings with a number of people at the School of Public Health. And [Dean] Trish Davidson in the School of Nursing was kind enough to throw a lunch for me. I met Trish early on in the process, and she gave me the lay of the land and helped me understand what it would be like to be a dean here.

I've been down there just like I've been meeting with people here. I say, tell me about your collaborations with the School of Education and the opportunities to work with us. Tell me what you're doing and how it might interface with what we're doing. It's been great. This is now my fourth major research university, and it's by far the most entrepreneurial place I've been in. Not even close. Public Health, I feel, is the epitome of that. Everyone I've met there is this enthusiastic, looking-for-the-next-opportunity kind of person. And we have a lot of people like that in the School of Education. I would like us to be even more entrepreneurial. There's less of a fear of failure here than any other place I've been. Academics can be a risk-adverse bunch, but I get less of a sense of that here. I feel the sky is the limit on collaboration.

You could have stayed in Iowa, or gone elsewhere. What attracted you to this position and this school?

The opportunity to work at a private institution was appealing. The constraints that boards of education and legislatures are putting on public universities and the way they operate, it's making it increasingly difficult for these universities to be truly innovative. Public universities are in this conundrum where the states are pulling back money, but won't allow you to do other things, like maybe start new degree programs, or conduct purchasing differently than other state agencies. It's been this case of, we want you to operate like a business but, by the way, we're not going to give you any more freedom. President Daniels wrote a little about this in the Chronicle of Higher Education about a year or so ago, that public universities need to be freed up to become world-class places of learning.

The prospect to come to a place that is known for its decentralization, which I have already seen, I feel is both an opportunity and a challenge. The opportunity being the ability to collaborate with schools like Public Health and the School of Nursing, which are literally the best in the world at what they do.

The College of Education at the University of Iowa is 150 years old, one of the first of its kind in the country. This place is really only 10 years old. We don't have traditional departments yet, or a tenure system. I feel this place is ripe for opportunity, and some of the things that might get in your way in a traditional educational school are less likely to get in your way here.

How hard will it be to establish an identity, and why is it so important?

I think we need to figure out who we are for a couple of reasons. One, we are financially in a situation where we need to make some choices. In order to make these choices, you need to identify priorities. What is important to you? Right now, I don't think we know exactly.

The previous dean did a wonderful job of creating revenue and growth opportunities for the school. If you look at the number of programs the school has started in the past five to seven years, it's a tremendous amount. We created the online EdD (doctor of education) program, which is kind of the first in the nation. We're doing a really good job with this program. We have some great partnerships with Teach for America and Urban Teachers. So, we have some really innovative and great programs. But other programs are not as strong, and we have to ask ourselves how distinct they are from our peers.

It's also very important to communicate to prospective students who we are. Why come here? Almost certainly we're going to be asking you to pay a premium to come here. Maybe they're also considering UMBC or Towson University. We need to make a very cogent and rational argument that there is something about our programs that will make a significant return on investment compared to those other schools. Either the knowledge gained, the ability to do something with that knowledge, or the innovative nature of the program. Again, we have to be distinctive. And then there are the doctoral students, who might be considering a Vanderbilt or University of Pennsylvania, which is another market segment. We're all elite schools, but what is it about coming here that will be different? All that is caught up in identity and who we are.

How close are we to establishing this identify, and what can we build on?

Well, first, we're not the only school of education that is still working on how to define who it is. That's the good news. Quite frankly, if we can define our niche we can be ahead of the game.

I think one thing we can build is what we've already talked about, the entrepreneurial nature of Johns Hopkins, which I think is part of the spirit of Hopkins as far as I can tell. I think we can leverage that because we're doing some of that already in the School of Education, and there is an existing and ongoing need to generate a group of people who have conceptual, theoretical, and practical skills to be educational entrepreneurs. To start new companies and come at educational reform with new perspectives and tools. To be able to work with private and government agencies. These are all real talents. Our centers, one of the things we really have going for us, have been around for decades. We might be young, but our centers are in some cases 50 or more years old. They have been doing the research-to-practice thing for a long time. We need to better connect that with some of our degree programs in order to do some more translational work.

In the announcement of your appointment you said: "I aspire to be an ethical, forward-thinking leader." Tell me what you mean about 'ethical' and how that might manifest in our programs, or how we do things.

I was thinking more about my leadership style than bringing ethics into the K-12 classroom, although I'd be very much for that in an era of facts don't seem to matter anymore. We should be teaching children what constitutes a fact. How empirical evidence should be used. To me, that seems pretty darn important.

"I want one of the first things people to say about me is that he's candid and he's truthful. If he tells you something, you can bank on it."
Christopher Morphew
Dean, School of Education

I want one of the first things people to say about me is that he's candid and he's truthful. If he tells you something, you can bank on it. As I'm making decisions that will affect lots of people, and their families, I want to be as transparent as I can. I want to be as open as I can. Not just because good leaders are transparent, but because better decisions result from that. Part of ethics, to me, is that if there's reason to believe that you're going to get a better decision by pursuing path X, then it's ethical to pursue path X. I can't make perfect decisions all that time. I can only work with the information that I have, and if one path is more likely to lead to an ethical decision, then it's the ethical path.

At Iowa, you led some renovation efforts, a staff development program, a new faculty startup program. What are you most proud of?

The renovation went really well. We renovated some high-tech classrooms and several thousands of feet of space. I was in charge of hiring for some new positions that supported the research and budget capacity for the school, and we attracted some great people. I feel that has contributed to the great work being done at the college. We also started a space-sharing agreement with an interdisciplinary center on campus. But I'm probably most proud of the number of faculty applying for external funding. This went up significantly. I think last year maybe 50 out of 75 faculty were submitting external proposals. Of all the units of the university, we were the only ones trending up. I was really proud of that.

I also like to think I left the place in better shape than when I got there, and I think people felt I was an honest and ethical leader, somebody that people could count on and come to if they needed resources. I think that is the job of leaders in the academy. Some people might think that our job at the dean's level is to say 'no.' I think our job is to say 'yes' to good ideas and good people.

In your research, you study higher education. In fact, you have a book coming out from the Johns Hopkins University Press in November called The Challenge of Independent Colleges: Moving Research into Practice. Tell us about the book and what've you been focused on in this realm.

The book actually is a little outside my primary research. I was asked a few years ago to co-chair, along with Hal Hartley, a group that's a collaboration between the Association of the Study of Higher Education and the Council of Independent Colleges, an association that supports the work of some 700 smaller independent schools in the country. I was approached a few years ago by a friend who was president of the CIC at the time, and he said 'I'm trying to bridge the research-to-practice divide; can you help better inform researchers so that they produce research that is more useful and better inform people on the ground about the work being done?'

It's about the challenges that independent colleges face, and about how we can provide more research to help the leaders on these campuses face these challenges. There are hundreds of colleges in this country that, from a resource and size perspective, are challenged. The difference of attracting 10 students can make or break their budget. Most students come from a 100-mile radius. These are places without large endowments that really need to be managed very well. They need to be very careful about starting new programs. Their tuition is markedly higher, and they don't have the endowment and financial aid to bring that tuition down to compete with a University of Maryland or Towson, for example, which have huge state subsidies.

My co-editor was John Braxton from Vanderbilt, and we commissioned nine chapters, topics that are central to managing a small private university such as using technology to improve student learning; student engagement; faculty issues. At the end of each chapter, we have a response from a president or provost from a small private college. We asked them what is their reaction to the contents of this chapter. What is useful? What is not useful? What questions are not answered? Basically, a critique of the chapter. You get a sense of what's going on in their heads and the challenges they face.

How applicable are the lessons in the book to the challenges you'll face here at Johns Hopkins?

I think it's applicable. Sure. I had mentioned the EdD program before. Schools of education typically have a small PhD program. You tend to get these very young, academically gifted students. They have a very good GRE score. They perform well on a test. They can explain theoretical and conceptual knowledge to you. But their ability to take the knowledge and solve problems on the campus, not so much.

But in our EdD program, we have people who have already been out in the workforce, working maybe seven to 10 years at a school or some other organization. They're really smart, and they've seen the problems inherent in their organization, and they want to solve those problems. We're trying to supply them with the tools to solve them. In that way, what we're doing is similar to what is going on with the colleges we feature in the book. I think we need to operate in the practical realities of the world.

I see my kids and their peers, who are addicted to devices, and seemingly have ever-decreasing attention spans. I know I'm generalizing. How much of a challenge is that when it comes to K-12 and secondary education in this country? It seems that teachers have to work even harder to get and retain their attention.

I have a couple of thoughts about that. When I hear something like that, I think of my historian friends who would remind me, well in 1740, people were saying the exact same thing about the challenges of teaching today's youth because there is so much going on in the world. True, they didn't have smartphones in 1740, but my guess is there is a point in any period where they were saying something eerily similar about 'the youth of today.' So I'm not sure how much of this is new, or just appears to be new.

Video credit: Renee Fisher

That said, I have kids, and it pains me to see how much they are connected to their phones. We were getting pizza the other day at a place near Towson University, and outside the [restaurant] there were nine students, and all nine were staring at their phones. Here they were all lined up, looking at their phones, after four months of not seeing each other. Let's assume they're all friends. The old guy in me is sort of like, wow, they're missing out at this opportunity to enjoy each other's company. When I pointed this out to my son, age 14, he saw nothing wrong with it, of course.

So, yes, maybe there is some challenge. Again, I think of my son who recently was reading Fahrenheit 451, a book assigned for school, while he was listening to music on his headphones. He said, 'I could do both.' I'm like, there is no way your comprehension can be as good. It's Fahrenheit 451! It's a good book. But anyway, K-12 teachers have been confronting these sort of challenges for hundreds of years. I suspect good teachers equipped with strong classroom management skills and really good substantive knowledge will figure out ways to use smartphones and other technology to bring kids in.

What makes a good teacher?

The ability to reach a diverse set of learners. Find out where they're at, and customize what you're teaching to them. Provide an equitable platform for everyone to make gains. What will motivate them? What will interest them? What will connect them to the knowledge in that classroom, the subject being taught?

I remember teachers who were able to accommodate all of us, and not just make everyone do the same thing just because that is today's lesson plan. I think kids respect teachers who they know care about making sure they're engaged in the learning material.

I was talking recently with a teacher who lamented that they don't teach cursive in school anymore. She argued how it helps student literacy, and the mere act of writing in cursive helps with spatial learning. I'm not sure how much of this is true, but you often hear things like that. That they unfortunately don't teach X in school anymore. Is this just the evolution of things, or are we missing out on aspects of education that maybe we need to bring back?

I don't know. My mother taught 3rd grade for 30 years. She writes in perfect, perfect cursive. Her cursive Qs and Zs are spot-on correct because she taught this kind of writing for so long. I guess if I were to channel her a little bit, I'm not sure if she would say that cursive makes you more thoughtful about what you're trying to write, but there is something to be said for handwriting, and for reading something on a piece of paper and not a computer screen. I can tell you that my comprehension of something on paper versus on a computer screen is better. I don't know the cognitive part of that. Maybe if we had a neuroscientist here right now they could tell us.

You mentioned in the announcement of your appointment that dinner talks would often revolve around education and schools. What exactly were you talking about? What were the common complaints you overheard?

Principals. The common complaint was leadership in the school.

Hiring the right principal can make or break a school?

Absolutely. Plenty of empirical evidence on that. You have a good principal, a lot of your problems go away. Just talk to people who do research on school leadership. Principals can explain away a lot of the variance among schools.

What makes a good principal? Someone who listens and responds to the faculty?

This is not my area of expertise, so I can't quote you on the latest research and evidence, or what the criteria are for a good principal. But I can tell you that my parents would say someone who is supportive of me and what I'm trying to do in my classroom. Someone who has my back when it comes to parents. Someone who provides me with resources, and someone who holds less productive people accountable. They evaluate everyone fairly, and if someone is not doing a good job, will find remediation for them. A lot of those leadership criteria are the same for any organization.

I also go back to integrity. Are they aware of what goes on in the classroom? Do they care about the kids? Do they put the kids first and are less concerned about their own promotion opportunities and make sure the kids with the lowest access to resources are getting what they need?

I'm not sure if you had a chance yet to see the documentary Step, about the step team at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women. The film stars several of the school's teachers and staff, including a guidance counselor who seemingly would do anything for her students. It was eye-opening to see such passion on display.

That's why it pains me to see how teachers are often portrayed in the media. Sure, there are unproductive teachers just like there are less productive firemen or CEOs. One of the differences is the way [teachers] are portrayed as not important. But they are incredibly important. Everyone remembers the good teaches they had. They make a huge difference.

Any worrying trends in education that we haven't already touched on?

I would say policy being made on ideological rather than empirical grounds. I think for whatever reason it's become increasingly hard for empirical evidence, which could be used to make good policy decisions, to see the light of day. Take the choice debate in schools. There is some evidence that some kind of choice makes sense, and there is evidence choice in other circumstances doesn't make sense. In some cases, it can improve situations for underserved kids, and in other cases it can't. Unless we can identify the difference between the two, the reform isn't going to help. That is one trend that worries me.

Also, the states cutting funding for K-12 education. Some states are getting sued, sometimes successfully, because they are not meeting their constitutional duty to fund K-12 education adequately, and that is a pretty low bar.

Seems to me like a worthwhile investment, investing in our kids learning.

Some states give companies huge, huge subsidies to build a plant or move into their state. Companies like Apple, who are already making a lot of money. Yet we're cutting funding to K-12 and higher education every year. Really? That doesn't make a lot of sense to me.

What are your thoughts about technology in classrooms? Using laptops, smartphones, clickers. Plugging our kids in to whatever we can get our hands on.

I think it's a double-edged sword. If you can demonstrate to me that clickers or using smartphones to take quick quizzes will give teachers a better sense that students understand this concept—like maybe 90 percent or more understand, and we can move on to the next concept—that seems a reasonable thing to do.

But I can't tell you how many times I observed classrooms when I was a department chair or dean, and I'm looking at students' smartphones and computer screens and they're not connected to the material at all. They're on Facebook. They're on Instagram. They're texting their friends. In those cases, these devices get in the way. The question is how do get these devices, attached to some at the hip, to advance learning and not get in the way. I don't know, is there a way to set the Wi-Fi so all they could see is course-related material (laughs).

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I'm a tennis player. And you can put this in the story—I'm looking for teams to play on, or partners. I haven't played in four weeks, and I'm getting fatter all the time. I need to play.

Good luck. OK, other than finding someone to play tennis with, what are your next few months like here as you get up and running?

More of the same. Slowly moving toward some decisions. Like the identity decision we talked about, and how we're going to allocate resources. I've heard from lots of people who have proposals to start some new things, so I have to figure out what to invest in. Some ideas look pretty interesting.

And then just continue to figure out how this place works, and where are our opportunities and places we need to prune.

I think we'll have a better sense of where we want to go by the end of this semester.