Walking Out isn’t about abandoning institutions. It’s about abandoning beliefs.

In my May 21st blog, I bemoaned the decision to shut down more than a dozen schools in the Boston public school system—most of which serve low-income neighborhoods. I wondered what “walking out” of this system might look like, and went as far as suggesting “…that might mean pulling our children out of the school system and turning to one another to create neighborhood learning spaces which replace schooling with discovery.”

And then last week, I found myself in a fascinating conversation with the board of a progressive Massachusetts-based foundation whose commitment is to restore the quality and equitability of the U.S. public school system—not walk out of it. They believe that our educational institutions can and should prepare all children—regardless of race, gender, class or native language—to fully participate in our democratic society. Was I suggesting that our schools were doomed to failure? That there was no hope for the future of public education in the United States? That our only options were to stay inside fighting a losing battle or to abandon public schools and invent something entirely new?

I found myself caught in a thought trap that I’ve noticed comes up again and again in these conversations about walking out and walking on. We do not have to abandon our institutions in order to walk on. Rather, it’s the belief systems that underpin these institutions that we are called upon today to walk out of.

If we accept the notion that our behaviors reveal what we truly value, then one can only assume that in the U.S., we value testing over learning, white children over black children, rich communities over poor communities and immigrants who came to the U.S. several generations ago over new immigrants. Even if no one set out to create these inequalities (though some folks at this foundation might suggest otherwise), they’re undeniable. They emerged through choices that we have made about how we divide up our neighborhoods, taxes and budgets; through our allegiance to standardization, measurement and replication as strategies for change; through our loss of confidence in teachers, administrators and other publicly employed professionals; through our anxiety about the American school system falling behind other countries; and so on. Unfortunately, our public education system is plagued with beliefs that limit our ingenuity and inhibit our capacity to work together to solve problems.

So what are the beliefs and values we might experiment with walking on to if we wish to restore our public schools? There are infinite answers to this question. Some people are experimenting with self-directed learning programs (including two programs I wrote about in Walk Out Walk On). Others are creating communities of practice where teachers, administrators, professionals and youth can learn together and invent new solutions. Still others are experimenting with new models of equitable school funding. And so on.

These people are all Walk Outs who are walking on within our dominant institutions. They are doing this the same way any Walk Out would—by bravely choosing to leave behind a world of unsolvable problems, limiting beliefs and destructive individualism. They are walking on to the beliefs and practices that enable them to give birth to systems that serve our communities—in this case, our public schools.

3 replies
  1. Tenneson Woolf
    Tenneson Woolf says:


    Sometimes I share it this way. “Many of us can relate to intractable problems. Yet many of us can also relate to irrepressible dreams. In these times, turn to one another.”

    Yes, walking out of systems, sometimes. And YES, walking out of the relationship that we have with some of our beliefs. Walking on to new beliefs created and nurtured in the company of others.

    Deborah — you are a gift!

  2. Gibrán
    Gibrán says:

    100% agree with the premise that walking out is more about beliefs that institutions, but as a former board member of the organization you speak of, I wonder if the key ideas behind WOWO might be overly compromised here.

    The shape – the very structure – the formation of the institutions that well meaning progressives are trying to reform is itself fatally flawed – in many of these cases institutionalization is itself the problem – it has led to a certain calcification.

    Also – there are important questions to raise about what a public good is in our corporatized democracy, and the implications of the responsibilities of community being outsourced to bureaucracies…

    Familiar with the experiments you are talking about, I wonder if they should be called walk outs…

  3. Mary Mavis
    Mary Mavis says:

    As a parent of a 15 year-old son in public school, I see a desperate need for transformation in education. He’s smart, well-fed, and in a stable environment. If he weren’t, he’d be lost. And, even though he is doing fine, he has little respect or enthusiasm for what and how he is learning.

    I wonder how many parents feel the same, but are not in dialogue about it.

    These big intractable problems seem so impossible. Maybe we need to increase and galvanize the desire for change first.


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