01/30/2012 12:20 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2012

Educational Inequity Is No Accident

What's good for the goose is evidently not so good for the gander. In America's current educational environment, the disparity of experience is bad and getting worse.

This week, my school screened the excellent documentary, Race to Nowhere. Audience members, primarily parents of our students, were terrified and relieved in alternating waves. They were terrified because of the stark realization that alarming numbers of American children are losing their childhoods, their opportunities and, most tragically, their lives to unremitting stress. They were relieved because their children are partially insulated from this debilitating stress because the Calhoun School is not crazy.

The discussion following the film was enlivened by several panel members, including Sara Bennett, co-author of The Case Against Homework, Jerri Dodds, Dean of Sarah Lawrence College and Laura Prince, a Manhattan child therapist.

While the discussion was wide-ranging and fascinating, one deeply ironic observation was unavoidable: As the most privileged communities are finally waking up to the devastating consequences of a system gone mad, the "system gone mad" is unleashing mayhem on the least privileged communities.

In privileged schools, parents, child development experts and thoughtful educators are moving briskly away from unrealistic and arguably damaging academic emphasis in early childhood education. In the least privileged schools, early "academic" work is forced on young children in developmentally inappropriate ways and pressure to perform is elevated.

In privileged schools, the importance of play in the social and cognitive development of young children is widely embraced. In the least privileged schools, play is seen as a frivolous. There isn't much time for play when Racing to the Top.

Privileged schools are reducing homework, responding to the unambiguous research that shows the inefficacy of homework. As Ms. Bennett reminds us, more than an hour for younger children results in diminishing returns. More than two hours, even for high school students, is counterproductive. Yet children in the least privileged schools are expected to do more and more homework, despite this abundant evidence.

Privileged schools recognize the critical importance of the arts, not only as a means of sustaining beauty and culture, but as a powerful component of neurobiological development. The least privileged schools have neither time nor money to offer these life and brain altering experiences.

The most privileged schools recognize the critical importance of unstructured time for students of all ages. Unstructured time is when many of the most powerful social skills and creative capacities are nurtured. The least privileged schools "program" children all day, forced by externally mandated standards or seduced by the false and dangerous idea that learning is supposed to be "hard work."

Many of the most privileged schools are abandoning things like the AP curriculum, recognizing it as frenetic, unimaginative transcript-padding and are working to dissuade their students from killing themselves striving for meaningless "perfection." The least privileged schools are falling for the hype, mindlessly parroting the conventional "wisdom" that taking many AP courses represents "excellent" education.

Privileged schools recognize that a full school day, a sports or arts activity, and an hour or two of homework add up to more time than a full work week for many adults. The least privileged schools are extending the school day, moving toward Saturday classes and long hours of tutoring outside class. Many small children are living lives that would violate child labor laws (not to mention what Newt Gingrich would have them do!).

Privileged schools are trying, albeit imperfectly, to preserve childhood, recognizing that children's lives are important now and that they need time to daydream and play. Politicians and bureaucrats in the least privileged communities talk as though children are faceless raw material to be formed into an economic commodity for some future productive use.

Much of contemporary educational policy is condescending and, arguably, racist and/or classist. Urban public schools and most charter schools are designed for the "other." They are schools that think-tank economists, charter school architects and wealthy politicians would never choose for their own children.

While lip service is given the notion of equal opportunity, the evidence tells another story. These wildly differing educational practices promise to exacerbate, not heal, the deep rifts in American education.