In the wake of the Atlanta Spa shootings and a surge in violence against Asian Americans throughout the pandemic, Illinois made history by becoming the first state to mandate that Asian American history be taught in public K-12 schools beginning in the 2022-23 school year. The Teaching Equitable Asian American Community History (TEAACH) Act was signed into law in July 2021 with wide bipartisan support, amending the state’s school code to ensure that all Illinois public school students learn about the contributions Asian Americans have made to the United States.
Similar mandates have required various states across the country to teach the histories of African Americans, Latino Americans, Native Americans and LGBTQ+ Americans — and some states have made revisions or updates to make existing legislation more robust and inclusive. This is critical because in addition to improving student well-being, research shows that when students feel represented in school and learn about the experiences and stories of people who look like them, academic performance and attendance rise. In fact, diverse representation and multicultural awareness benefits all students. And today’s students are demanding more and speaking up.
Passing a mandate such as the TEAACH Act is certainly something to celebrate, but it is just one step in realizing the goal of increasing representation in schools. District leaders, school administrators and educators need sustained support to effectively and respectfully implement the shifts behind a curricular mandate like this.
In Illinois, individual districts are ultimately responsible for creating an implementation plan and revising or developing curriculum, but that’s a lot of pressure. The state partnered with Asian Americans Advancing Justice Chicago (AAAJ Chicago) — a local advocacy organization focused on advancing civil rights and racial equity, which advocated for the passage of the TEAACH Act — to support implementation. The state education agency also established a committee to advise the state on how to bring the TEAACH Act to life in schools and produced a webinar series to support the mandate’s implementation.
As an Asian American, a former classroom teacher and a resident of Illinois, I got involved with AAAJ Chicago to learn how I could support local schools and districts. I recently connected with Grace Pai, the executive director of the organization, and Esther Hurh, a professional development (PD) facilitator who has been delivering sessions about the TEAACH Act to educators, to better understand the challenges around putting the TEAACH Act into practice. They shared about the work they’ve done to support the first year of implementation and some lessons they’ve learned along the way.
Passing Legislation Is One Thing. Making Sure Schools Have an Implementation Plan Is Another.
Just because a mandate has been passed, it doesn’t mean there’s necessarily a plan for implementation, access to training or a repository of resources, all of which are necessary to put it into practice with fidelity. It’s not even guaranteed that district- and school-based staff are aware of the mandate at all.
A working group created to support implementation of the TEAACH Act reached out to schools, districts and regional offices of education to make sure they were aware of the mandate and had a plan in place. AAAJ Chicago created a two-hour workshop for educators that overviews the lack of Asian American history taught in schools across the country; where Asian Americans are concentrated in Illinois; tropes to avoid reinforcing in classrooms; and pedagogical practices to respectfully teach Asian American history.
“There’s a huge absence of understanding of Asian American history among Illinois teachers,” Hurh explains, adding “It’s not unusual to hear many of our teachers, including Asian American teachers, say they learned nothing about Asian American history. Let’s get them to recognize there is an absence.”
Professional development is a key part of building awareness of this absence and a knowledge-base for the educators who will be teaching students directly. As a PD facilitator, Hurh says she prioritizes modeling how to incorporate Asian American history in a way that treats the community with dignity.
After facilitating each PD session, Hurh sends out a survey to attendees. “What breaks my heart and also makes my heart full is that there are Asian American teachers who write in that they feel validated and seen as Asian American adults.”
Educators Need High-Quality, Accessible Resources
District leaders driving the development of implementation plans need access to resources so they can create or modify curriculum, and the educators teaching Asian American history need materials that help them teach their students. But district leaders, administrators and teachers have incredible demands placed on them, which were exacerbated by the pandemic and while there are high-quality materials available, they’re not compiled.
To ensure that instructional materials are easily accessible to educators, AAAJ Chicago convened a working group of Asian American educators and community leaders that compiled a database of Asian American history resources that showcases a range of materials from picture books to documentaries and primary sources. The working group also developed sample scope and sequences for both the elementary and secondary level.
A Step Toward Inclusion Is Better Than Omission, but Risk Remains
The passage of an inclusive curriculum law, such as the TEAACH Act, can be a major step forward for representation and inclusivity in schools. But there is still a risk that the leaders tasked with developing curriculum and the teachers charged with delivering it will include the history, but in a way that reinforces tropes or focuses on the dehumanizing aspects of the histories.
“We all start somewhere. Teaching Asian American history at all is an important first step even if it’s not the way we want it to be,” Pai says, adding that unfortunately the teaching of negative stereotypes has been an ongoing issue, long before the TEAACH Act was passed.
Hurh and Pai encourage educators to go beyond the “four F’s” — food, fashion, folklore and festivals — when teaching Asian American history.
“So much of the history that is shown in schools is dehumanizing,” Hurh explains, but it can be eye opening for teachers to learn that Asian Americans were often partners and leaders in struggles, she says. For example, Larry Itliong and the Filipino Farm Labor Union partnered with Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta to demand farmer workers’ rights; Patsy Mink was the first congresswomen of color and she co-sponsored Title IX; and the Tape family took their fight for school desegregation to the California Supreme Court.
“If people are paying even a little more attention to add an Asian American story, it’s an important starting point because it’s demonstrating that teachers are putting in some effort to learn something they didn’t learn,” Pai explains. But it is a process, one that requires reflection and a growth mindset.
One of the complications of implementation and accountability stems from the fact that the TEAACH Act requires “a unit of instruction” dedicated to Asian American history, which is vague and open to interpretation. The state plan is currently for districts to self-report whether they followed the mandate for the first three years and then it is spot checked. With self-reporting, it is possible that a school district earnestly believes it met the requirement by, say, recognizing the Lunar New Year or highlighting food from Asian countries, but that is not enough. Therefore, it is critical to make sure schools understand the importance of teaching these histories, care about teaching them in a way that is respectful and are equipped with the resources necessary to do so.
As of May 22, 2023, AAAJ Chicago has trained more than 1,400 educators virtually and in person and some districts have held their own trainings, but this only represents a small fraction of educators teaching in Illinois. “We hope the reach spreads more organically. It is challenging. We are looking to lift up positive examples of districts, schools and teachers who are doing a great job,” Pai says.
Since AAAJ Chicago is not an education implementation organization, other institutions focused on teacher training and development ultimately will need to sustain the work. The state partnered with the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to develop an in-depth professional development series for the TEAACH Act. Illinois also established an inclusive history commission the same year TEAACH was passed that provided recommendations on social studies instruction. This led to the establishment of the Inclusive, Inquiry-Based Social Studies for Illinois which includes a paid professional development series for teachers on “how to locate and utilize resources for non-dominant cultural narratives and sources of historical information.” This kind of long term investment in PD is needed to make sure a mandate like the TEAACH Act is implemented long term.
In an effort to share resources widely, there’s a search for a permanent home for the resource database. “These Asian American history resources should be available within a broad set of education resources and not just on an Asian American platform,” Pai said.
After all, Hurh reminds us, “Asian American history is American history.”