Opinion Blog

Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Different Perspectives: Policymaking Versus Individual Decisionmaking

By Guest Blogger — February 16, 2016 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Note: Alexander M. Hoffman, the president of AleDev Research and a former high school teacher, is guest blogging this week. You can contact him at ahoffman@aledev.com.

I first read Rick Hess in graduate school, when a professor assigned his first book, Spinning Wheels. While I often disagree with him, I am a big fan of his books, his general approach, and his focus on the challenges of policy implementation. Rick Hess Straight Up is important to me as a consistent source of views that challenge my own, and I am honored to write here this week.

I want to hit three major themes this week. Today and tomorrow I will try to explain how I think understanding the perspective or point of view of different actors in educational decision-making helps to understand the decisions they make, and thereby illuminates the source of some of our biggest disagreements. On Thursday, I will explain what I call The Big Common Core Lie. I shared this with Rick last year, and I think he really liked it. Last, I will summarize the state of my own research—the reality of what accountability means for educators.


Different education policy actors have different points of view and perspectives on the nature of problems and the desirability of solutions, often as much based on those points of view as on ideological positions or values. Understanding education policy requires understanding how this works. This is especially true for the most fundamental divide in education policy—that between education policy decision-makers and the families who gain or lose based on their decisions.

First, let’s consider the apocryphal story of robbing Peter to pay Paul. It is easy to decry this dynamic or say that it is wrong, but it is more useful to think about how your relationship to the situation might influence your opinion.

  • If you are Paul, this actually doesn’t sound like the worst thing in the world. If you care about Paul’s hungry kids, this doesn’t sound crazy at all. If Paul and his kids are more important to you than Peter, robbing Peter to pay Paul might be worth it to you.
  • If you are Peter, this definitely sounds like a bad idea. If Peter has hungry kids, too, this sounds like a really bad idea. If Peter is more important to you than Paul, you have a very different view than if Paul is more important than Peter.
  • Now consider a third perspective: Patrick’s. Imagine that Patrick knows both Peter and Paul, and that he cares about them and their families equally. From Patrick’s perspective, robbing Peter to pay Paul accomplishes nothing. It is just moving the deckchairs around on the Titanic.

Policy-makers and community leaders are—or should be—like Patrick. Shifting resources to solve one problem, but creating another equal problem by doing so? Well, that just seems like a waste of time to Patrick. But Peter and Paul do not have that view. Parents and families are like Peter and Paul.

Second, let’s be clear about the morality of the different positions. Parents should want what is best for their children. We generally do not consider it immoral for parents to value their own children more than others’ children, or to focus more on their own children’s opportunities than on opportunities for others. Few people would criticize parents who want to maximize opportunities for their own children, even if doing so costs the broader community a little bit. There is something deep within us all that makes us care more about our own than about others’. Keeping this in mind really is critical to understanding how most people think about educational policy—be it local, state or national policy.

Policy-makers and community leaders, on the other hand, have a qualitatively different perspective, with quite different goals. They cannot—or at least should not—think about maximizing opportunities for their own children in a way that costs others; obviously, that would violate their responsibilities to the public. Nor should they maximize opportunities for families like theirs at the expense of others. Rather, they must consider opportunities for all children, even those who come from families quite different than their own.

Again, both of these perspectives are morally driven. It is moral to want what is best for those you are close to. It is also moral to deny extra opportunities to anyone that come at the expense of others.

Losing sight of the distinction between these two views often leads to parents getting angry at policy-makers who make decisions that keep them (parents) from absolutely maximizing opportunities for their own children. At the same time, when policy-makers inappropriately bring this parental perspective to their work, they sometimes create opportunities for the children of families like theirs (i.e., families with educationally savvy parents) in ways that rob Peter to pay Paul.

Third, let’s consider where this gets us.

It should help us to understand why families are so often frustrated with the decisions of policy-makers. There is, after all, a real disconnect between the valid moral considerations of each group. It might also help members of each group to better communicate their own thinking to the other group.

However, it is far from the final answer. Instead, it pushes us to think about when we might be robbing Peter to pay Paul. Some think that special programs for gifted students do this, and some think that the absence of such programs does this just as much. To be honest, I have not been quite been able to figure that one out. On the other hand, I am comfortable saying that charter schools—and private schools more broadly—rob Peter to pay Paul, while others would vehemently disagree with me.

I hope that considering the various sides of this question, “Are we robbing Peter to pay Paul?” might make it easier for those who disagree on big education policy issues to find a language to have productive conversations about those differences, beginning with acknowledging more clearly which perspective they are bringing to the table.

Being mindful of the different values and goals that come with different perspectives and responsibilities is vital to understanding our education policy debates. Only by doing so can we truly understand the strength and weaknesses, the benefits and costs, of the various policy choices we have in front of us.

Tomorrow, I will apply this lesson to leaders in Washington, to try to explain why they so often try to do things that Rick thinks are dumb—citing Spinning Wheels to help me make my point.

--Alexander M. Hoffman

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.