School boss sorry about 'inappropriate' survey, but Harvard authors not

A Boston-area school district is apologizing after parents complained about a survey given to kids as young as sixth grade that probed deep into their home lives.

Administrators with the Triton school district distributed an optional Harvard University survey to public school students earlier this month that asked kids to rate which parent is more "honest" and "caring" and disclose their parents' attitudes on race and economic equality.

"How fair do your parents think it is that some people in this country have a lot of money and others just have a little money?" asks one question, prompting students to select responses ranging from "very fair" to "unfair" to "I'm not sure." 

"Do your parents do anything to help people who have less money?" another question asks. 

The optional survey is part of the "Making Caring Common Project" -- by Harvard's Graduate School of Education -- that seeks to help educators, parents, and communities "raise children who are caring, respectful, and responsible toward others and their communities."

"MCC uses research and the expertise and insights of both practitioners and parents to develop effective strategies for promoting in children kindness and a commitment to the greater good, to influence the national conversation about raising and educating caring, ethical children, and to develop partnerships that enhance our work and elevate our common message," the university states on its website.

The survey did not sit well with many parents who blasted the questionnaire as "bogus" and accused the university of not disclosing what, exactly, it intended to ask. Parents received advanced notice about the optional survey and were told all data would remain anonymous.

"They went into the family home. They asked questions that pinned one parent against the other," said a parent with children in the district who spoke to on condition of anonymity. 

The parent said that when she questioned her young daughter about the survey, the girl was upset and blurted out, "I didn't say anything bad about you." 

"My kids have no idea how much money I make and how much money I give to people," she said. "And frankly, it's none of the school's business or Harvard's for that matter."

"The sample questions on Harvard's website are nothing like what was on the survey," the parent said. "What they were trying to do versus what they did were two very different things." 

Christopher Farmer, the superintendent of Triton Regional School District -- which serves Newbury, Rowley and Salisbury, Mass. -- apologized for the survey on Tuesday, saying it was "well-intentioned" but included questions that were "inappropriate" and "intrusive."

Farmer stressed that the questionnaire was entirely optional and that parents were given advanced notice of it. 

"They could bypass any questions that made them uncomfortable," he told

But, Farmer said, the 15-page survey included questions that "should not have been asked."

"Not many [parents] have complained directly to me but we do know that a lot of parents are concerned because some of the questions really were about things that included family issues," he said, adding that he had reviewed the survey before it was distributed but "not in its entirety." Farmer noted that Triton school district has since withdrawn from the project.

Farmer apologized to parents in the district in a message sent out Nov. 17, saying, "I am contacting you to apologize for the fact that a survey authored by Harvard’s Making Care Common program and recently taken by high school and middle school students contained questions which at times intruded inappropriately into family matters."

"My usual approach to people and organizations is to trust but verify," Farmer wrote. "I have had prior successful experience working with Harvard’s highly regarded School of Education. On this occasion I did not review the survey in its entirety, and clearly missed questions that have caused families concern."

While Harvard is deleting all of the data collected from Triton students, its Graduate School of Education is standing by the survey.

Richard Richard Weissbourd, a Harvard psychologist with the graduate school of education who runs the Making Caring Common project, told, "We don't think it was a mistake."

"We are trying to gather information that will help schools and parents engage young people in discussions about race and inequality," Weissbourd said. "Hard to have those discussions if you don’t hear from young people."

Weissbourd said students did not have to partake in the survey at all and that kids did not have to choose between parents.

"There’s a neither option," he said, adding, "We have concerns that fathers are not pulling their weight." 

"We stand by the survey," he said.

Click here to read the entire survey.