Illinois becomes first state to require schools to teach Asian American history

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File: Illinois Governor JB Pritzker signed a bill requiring elementary and high schools to teach a unit of Asian American history (Getty Images)
File: Illinois Governor JB Pritzker signed a bill requiring elementary and high schools to teach a unit of Asian American history (Getty Images)

Illinois has become the first state in the US to make the teaching of Asian American history in all its schools mandatory.

State governor JB Pritzker signed a bill on Friday that will require all elementary and high schools in Illinois to include Asian American history in a unit of their curriculum starting from the 2022-23 school year.

Mr Pritzker signed the Teaching Equitable Asian American History Act into law at a high school in Skokie, a suburb of Chicago.

“We are setting a new standard for what it means to truly reckon with our history,” the governor said. The legislation comes after increasing incidents of hate crimes against Asian Americans across the country. Several Asian American communities have been targeted with racist attacks during the pandemic.

In Chicago, nonprofit Asian Americans Advancing Justice led an aggressive campaign to include Asian American history in school syllabi. And finally, the historic legislation is set to come into effect from January 1 next year.

Mr Pritzker told the media that “educating children about the contributions of Asian Americans in US history would help curb the proliferation of false stereotypes and discrimination.”

The Teaching Equitable Asian American History Act says the curriculum must include “teaching of the efforts made by Asian Americans to advance civil rights, as well as their contributions to the arts and sciences and the economic and cultural development of the country.”

In a statement, Grace Pai, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, said the legislation will benefit more than 100,000 Asian American students from kindergarten through high school in Illinois.

“So many students don’t get a chance to learn about the contributions of their communities or the migration stories of their families, contributing to feelings of being ‘othered’,” she said.

Natasha Warikoo, a sociology professor and a scholar of racial and ethnic inequality in education at Tufts University told NBC News that the legislation was a “win.”

She, however, said a lot of legislations around curricular decisions are often “symbolic”.

“They are signals by legislators of priorities and where they stand and about what’s important to the state,” she said.

The new legislation says the state superintendent of education may provide materials that can be used as guidelines for the curriculum.

Dr Warikoo said the Asian American history in the curriculum was critical to change negative perceptions about the community.

“There’s research on Asian Americans, and it shows that a majority of people are more likely to see Asians as foreign. You see an Asian face, you assume they’re foreign,” she said.

“I think that’s in part because we don’t know the history of Asians in the United States. I think that it can attenuate those kinds of biases towards Asian Americans by making them part of US history,” she added.

Mr Pritzker tweeted that the legislation will be “creating more inclusive classrooms by making Illinois the first state in the nation to require Asian American history be taught in public schools”.

USA Today quoted Stewart Kwoh, co-founder of the Asian American Education Project, as saying the Illinois bill was a “pace-setting legislative measure”. He said at least 10 other states are considering something similar.

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