In Theory and In Practice: The Teaching Equitable Asian American Community History Act

Maddie Xilas

Associate Editor

Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2023

As we ring in the new year, there is a lot to celebrate in Illinois education law, including the Teaching Equitable Asian American Community History Act (TEAACH). TEAACH, which was signed into law by Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker in July 2021, officially makes Illinois the first state to require public schools to teach a unit of Asian American History. With the law taking effect during the 2022-2023 school year, most Illinois schools must change their current elementary and high school curriculum starting this year.

For advocates, myself included, who believe a productive education system is one which encourages students to critically think about racism and systems of oppression, ultimately helping to provide a framework for understanding why internalized, interpersonal, institutional, and structural racism continues to exist today, this law is a win. Yet it is not without its flaws. As we move into 2022, key questions regarding TEAACH remain. The first and most obvious question being: what will implementation of the law actually look like?

What could implementation look like?

We need not look further than the legislators and advocates who championed this law to understand what the implementation of this law could look like.

For example, Sohyun An, an advocate for TEAACH and professor of elementary and early childhood education, recently explained that most curriculums which focus at all on Asian Americans suffer from one of two core flaws. First, according to An, many curriculums focus only on the treatment of Japanese and Chinese immigrants, in large part ignoring the immense diversity of the Asian American Community. Similarly, many curriculums focus only on well-known events, like the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II or the Chinese Exclusion Act, thus, painting Asian Americans as victims of nativist sentiments, and not as primary actors who advocated both for themselves and other people of color.

TEAACH attempts to remedy some of the above concerns, requiring that every public elementary and high school include a unit of instruction on “the events of Asian American history…” as well as “…the contributions of Asian Americans toward advancing civil rights from the 19th century onward.” The law clearly states that such teaching, “shall include the contributions made by individual Asian Americans in government and the arts, humanities, and sciences, as well as the contributions of Asian American communities to the economic, cultural, social, and political development of the United States”.

The dreaded if

Clearly, the above statutory language is broad enough to allow for a curriculum change which attempts to counteract some of the more pervasive issues, discussed above, with how Asian American history is commonly taught in schools. This means if school boards are in fact committed to remedying some of the aforementioned problems, they can look to the instructional material that the State Superintendent of Education, who recently commented on the passing of TEAACH, may make available and/or to Asian Americans, a five-part PBS docuseries on Asian American history, which TEAACH names as a helpful resource.

However, the critical word in the above postulation is if. If a school board is in fact committed to seeing through the intent behind TEAACH, there will be resource available to help them do so. But, if, because of a lack of interest, time, resources, or any other reason, the school district does not comply, it is unclear if anything in the act is truly stopping them.

The language in the act is broad, meaning it is likely possible for school boards to comply with TEAACH even if what is being taught does not substantively address some or all of the issues which prompted the passage of TEAACH. In other words, it is possible that some of the same issues, like a narrow focus on the internment of Japanese Americans or the Chinese Exclusion Act, may persist, even if schools are technically in compliance with TEAACH.

Additionally, there is no requirement in TEAACH that a certain amount of time be allocated to the “unit” which this act mandates. In fact, the act clearly states that each school board will determine the minimum amount of instructional time that qualifies as a unit of instruction under TEAACH. Meaning that, it is at the discretion of the school board to decide how much time is allocated to the fulfillment of the newly minted requirements under TEAACH.

What will implementation look like?

Perhaps naively, I was surprised both by the lack of a minimum requirement for how long a unit, under TEAACH, must be and by the broadness of the language in the act. I was even more taken aback when a quick search of other Illinois laws that have parallel purposes to TEAACH, markedly 105 ILCS 5/27-20.5 (women’s history), 105 ILCS 5/27-20.4 (Black history), 105 ILCS 5/27-23.8 (disability history and awareness), and 105 ILCS 5/27-20.3 (Holocaust and genocide study), revealed, to varying degrees, similar concerns. Overall, there was a noticeable lack of specificity regarding both what content should be taught and for how long it must be taught for. While there are no doubt valid arguments for ensuring that teachers and local school boards have a substantial say in how and for how long content is being taught, I am still left wondering: what is truly the point of TEAACH and other acts like it?

While any perceived or actual weakness of the language in TEAACH does not negate the fact that TEAACH is, at the very least, symbolically a step towards more inclusive public-school curriculum, there is still the question of what this act will mean, in practice, for how Asian American history will be taught in Illinois public schools. In all fairness, it is difficult to speculate on how school districts will choose to implement changes in curriculum in response to TEAACH. Hopefully, they will all embrace the spirit and intent that motivated the passing of TEAACH and welcome the responsibility of teaching Asian American history in a rounded and thoughtful way. That being said, I do think it is worth noting that, any fair analysis of the impact of this law, will hinge, in large part, on how schools choose to comply with it. A choice that, I worry, for many schools, will not be intuitive.