CPE’s New Study: An Ongoing Dialog between Educators in Finland and U.S.

Finnish education has been a hot topic since 2003 when Finland ranked first in both science and reading, and second in mathematics in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). The report, released this week by the Center for Public Education (CPE) “adds to our insights into the Finnish education system”, remarked CPE Director Patte Barth. The new study examined how Finnish and American teachers see their profession, respectively. Different from previous research, this study provides a new lens through which we can see the similarities and differences in education system between the two countries.

In the new CPE report, we noticed that one difference between teachers in Finland and the U.S. is that American teachers have far less say in the decision-making process about student disciplinary policies than their colleagues in Finland. School discipline is one of the top challenges for American teachers and principals. Each year, U.S. secondary schools suspend or expel two million students, mostly for non-violent offenses such as disruption, disrespect, tardiness and dress code violations.

We cannot help but wonder how school disciplinary policies work in Finland, since Finnish teachers reported that they had more say in student disciplinary policies. In 2017, a Finnish researcher (Saloviita, 2017) conducted a study on school discipline in Finland. By analyzing a representative sample of comprehensive school teachers (N = 2,276) in Finland at grade levels 1-9, the researcher found that 30 percent of Finnish school teachers regularly use detention to discipline students. Detention was also frequently used as a method to manage misbehaviors by subject teachers instructing the upper grade levels; young, male special education teachers were more inclined to use detention to discipline students. However, the study also shows that subject teachers and special education teachers who practiced child-centered pedagogy in the classroom, such as group work, used detention less often than their colleagues.

School discipline is a challenge for both American and Finnish teachers. The use of punishment in Finnish schools is an increasingly debated topic. While local authorities in Finland have substantial responsibility for organizing education, e.g.,  hiring teachers and implementing curriculum, the Finnish Government defines and sets educational priorities (OECD, 2015). In Finland, a national law–the Act on Basic Education (1998) –allows the use of detention, written warnings, suspension, and expulsion for three months. Later, “educational conferences” was added to the law to encourage teachers to use softer management methods for problematic behaviors.

U.S. school administrators also reported using school discipline methods like those practiced in Finland, including conferences, parental notices, detention, suspension, and expulsion (Green & Barnes, 1993). It should be noted, however, that in the United States, because of the 10th Amendment, many education policies, including school discipline, are made by state or local government. School districts and principals in the U.S. have sizeable autonomy, but the CPE report indicates that American teachers do not have much say in tailoring policies pertaining to school discipline. This result is corroborated by the federal data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES, 2015).

As part of an ongoing dialog between educators in the U.S. and Finland, Finnish educator and scholar Pasi Sahlberg said, “In the United States, policymakers talk a lot about giving autonomy to schools that stops at the district or administrative level and often results in decision making that ignores the voices of educators and the community.” Sahlberg’s statement points out some problems in the United States, but teacher autonomy, or the lack thereof, is a complex issue. More research needs to be conducted on how to meet the needs of both teachers and administrators in terms of how to balance  teachers’ need for autonomy (i.e., using their professional judgement to tailor instruction to students in varying situations and contexts) and the need of school administrators and policymakers (i.e., considering local and national expectations of accountability, standardization and equality when making decisions).