'Erased From The History Books': Why Asian American History Is Missing In Texas Schools
When Anita Chaiprasert looks back on what she’s learned in school, she only remembers a handful of times when Asian American history was mentioned.
Chaiprasert said she vaguely recalled being taught about the Vietnam War. The Plano West High School senior couldn’t remember a single Asian American historical figure. As a Thai-American, Chaiprasert said she didn’t feel represented in lessons or textbooks.
“It’s not really talked about in school,” said Chaiprasert.
She spoke to KERA a few weeks before graduation and is headed to Texas A&M to study biology as a pre-med student in the fall. Chaiprasert spent all of her school years in Plano ISD classrooms, but her experience is not unique. Students and teachers across Texas shared similar stories with KERA.
“Whenever you get to United States history, Asian Americans tend to get erased from the history books,” said William Gross, a high school U.S. and world history teacher in Austin.
From educators to textbook advisors, experts say state standards, teaching approaches, textbooks and politics all contribute to the erasure of Asian American experiences when history is taught in Texas schools.
'It’s Often Left Out Or It's Just An Afterthought'
There’s simply not enough Asian American history taught in schools, says Sarah Soonling Heng Blackburn, a teacher educator with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Learning For Justice program.
“It’s often left out or it's just an afterthought,” she said. “Maybe kids will get a couple of sentences about Chinese railroad workers. Then they'll get a couple sentences about Japanese internment. That's typically about it.”
Asian Americans are largely overlooked in immigration narratives, according to University of Texas historian Madeline Y. Hsu. She launched a website to help educate high school students on immigration policy.
“We need to understand Asian American history, because it actually pertains to the United States broadly as a nation of immigrants,” she said.
There’s no expectation that Texas students graduate with an understanding of the rich diversity and complexity of Asian American experiences.
“It's not a deeper conversation about the longevity of Asian American history, for example, the contributions of Asian Americans, their struggles, their intersectional struggles with other groups, like Latinx and Black Americans,” said Mohit Mehta, a University of Texas PhD student and former Austin elementary school teacher.
Mehta said Texas public schools need to go deeper than what he calls the “Three F’s”: food, fashion and festivals.
'If The State Of Texas Doesn't Say This Is Important Material...'
Public education in Texas is shaped by the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills standards, the TEKS. The standards are set by the State Board of Education, a group of elected members responsible for changing curriculum standards and adopting textbooks. State exams — the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) — are based on the standards.
As a first-year teacher, Gross has a fresh perspective on how the TEKS shape what students learn. Educators face pressure to teach to state tests.
“If the state of Texas doesn't say, this is important material for you to learn, it's hard for us to fit it into the curriculum,” Gross said.
When it comes to Asian American history, Gross says the state standards outline just two major topics: the Chinese Exclusion Act and Japanese internment. He said the curriculum standards don’t include any named Asian American historical figures.
A nationwide conversation about the erasure of Asian American experiences in school curricula has surged amid rising anti-Asian discrimination and violence, including the Atlanta shootings in March when a man targeted women of Asian descent killing eight people.
In recent years, the State Board of Education (SBOE) has made steps towards more diverse course standards for social studies. In 2018, the elected board approved a Mexican American studies class. Last year, they approved an African American studies class. Over the past two years, the SBOE has listed Asian Americans as one of the groups that could be included in the state’s ethnic studies courses, but an official state-accredited class on Asian American history has not been established.
Texas State University history professor Frank de la Teja says the process of reviewing standards is expensive, time-consuming and politically fraught.
The TEKS were established in 1997. De la Teja is a former state historian for Texas who helped review the state’s social studies standards that were adopted in 2010. He said ideally the social studies standards ought to be reviewed every four or five years, but the most recent review was in 2018.
“The problem is that the longer you go between reviews and revisions, the more that events wind up being left behind,” he said.
Textbooks: Another Important Part Of The Equation
KERA borrowed a teacher's edition of a state-approved McGraw Hill "United States History Since 1877" textbook from a Dallas ISD high school teacher. The book is 834 pages and weighs more than 7 pounds. Its index lists just one page that references the term "Asian Americans.”
Two sentences on that page talk about Asian Americans’ service in the U.S. military during World War I: “Some Asian immigrants fought on the side of the United States even before they were citizens. Though they faced discrimination, many Asians served in the U.S. Army with distinction, being granted citizenship in recognition of their contributions.”
The Texas Education Agency, which oversees public education, declined to comment to KERA on the record about curriculum or textbook standards for Asian American history.
De la Teja said creating a textbook has become a precarious process of balancing political and economic concerns. Publishers must appeal to different groups including parents, teachers, publishers, boards of education and state boards. Appealing to all these groups often means preserving the status quo.
The history professor advised Houghton Mifflin on textbooks for middle and high school history classes said changing what’s in textbooks is an “evolutionary” process because publishers proceed cautiously.
“What that means is that history inches forward in terms of our understanding of what should be included, what should be stressed, what new events or what more recent events should be given a considerable amount of attention,” de la Teja said.
Another complicating factor, de la Teja said, is that “Asian American” describes so many diverse populations. Americans of Chinese or Japanese descent are commonly referenced in textbooks. But de la Teja said textbooks haven’t “caught up” with recent Texas history, which includes the immigration of many South Asians and South East Asians.
Textbook advisers like de la Teja are expected to present convincing arguments for changes, but it’s ultimately up to the State Board of Education to accept or reject expert input.
Given that the standards don’t prioritize the teaching of Asian American history, de la Teja said “it's going to be up to teachers to address those issues that matter to the students in front of them that go beyond the facts that are laid out in the textbooks.”
Straying From The TEKS Script To Give Students A Fuller Picture
That’s exactly what teacher William Gross has tried to do in his classroom. The high school teacher uses what he calls a “TEKS-and” method, using the standards as a jumping off point to provide a little more historical context.
“According to the TEKS, the Chinese Exclusion Act was all about jobs,” he said. “But with that, you can also stray away and talk about the lynchings that were happening of Chinese Americans and Asian Americans all up and down California.”
So in addition to lessons about the Chinese Exclusion Act and employment, which every Texas student is required to receive, Gross’ students also learned about how the hostility towards Chinese immigrants helped fuel racist violence.
While the standards provide certain guidelines, they leave room for interpretation — which is up to the discretion of individual teachers like Gross. That means educators must consider a variety of factors: time constraints, their knowledge and confidence on a subject, their willingness to go beyond the standards and the limitations set by their school, district and/or region. But that calculation often weighs heavily against deviating from the standards, especially in a school year upended by the pandemic and the massive winter storm.
Gross said using his “TEKS-and” method has been the way he’s tried to affirm his students in the classroom and feed their hunger for knowledge. After the Atlanta shootings, Gross was peppered with questions from students who were trying to piece the history together.
“It's kind of like trying to read a chapter book where every other chapter is taken out. You get bits and pieces,” he said. “You’re kind of confused, like what's happening and why did this happen?”
By omitting certain stories and figures, Gross said it was hard for students to understand the context of Asian American discrimination in the U.S.
'We Have A Political Process'
Ultimately, politics is central to how Asian American history is taught in Texas schools.
New legislation would make it more challenging for Gross to provide that context. The Senate has passed bills SB 2202 and HB 3979 that would restrict the discussion of race, current events and public policy in the classroom. HB 3979 has already been signed by Gov. Abbott.
When discussing the bills, proponents have equated this idea to critical race theory (CRT): An intellectual movement born out of law schools that teaches that racism is embedded in systems and structures in the U.S. — such as legal institutions — rather than just being the product of individual prejudice. CRT is typically taught in colleges and universities.
The bills will limit how public school teachers talk about race in the classroom, making it harder for them to address current events like the Atlanta shootings or rise in anti-Asian hate crimes during the pandemic.
Gross said the bills would restrict what he could say when teaching important Asian American historical topics.
“They don't want teachers to talk about race,” he said. “So if we're talking about the Chinese Exclusion Act, we can't bring up the topic of race. If we're talking about Japanese internment camps, we can't talk about race.”
But the critical race theory bills are only the latest aspect of the political controversy around what students are taught in Texas. Some of the politics is inherent to the partisan, elected nature of the State Board of Education.
“We have a political process,” said de la Teja. “It isn’t just educators who determine what the standards are. We have elected officials who do that and there’s always horse trading in politics.”
The 15-member board now seats nine Republicans and six Democrats.
The standard-setting board is a frequent battleground for social and cultural issues. In the past, the board has received widespread attention for debates during its board meetings, including a proposed Mexican American studies textbook that was deemed racist and its abstinence-first approach to sex education.
KERA reached out to several board members for this story, but they didn’t respond to requests for comment.
De la Teja said it’s often up to constituents to advocate for changes they’d like to see — the more people that speak up, the more likely it is that elected members will respond.
“If they make their interests and their needs felt by their elected members to the State Education Board, then the State Education Board members from representing those areas are going to be asking questions that they wouldn't ask if nobody's talking to them about it,” de la Teja said.
Constituents like 19-year-old Catalina Chang, a sophomore at the University of Texas at Dallas, are advocating for changes that will require public schools to include more Asian American history. From elementary to high school, she attended Fort Bend ISD schools near Houston. She remembers learning about Japanese internment camps, Chinese railroad workers, the Chinese Exclusion Act — and little else.
On April 29, she sent a letter to Matt Richardson, her local State Board of Education representative. She urged him to incorporate more Asian American history into K-12 curriculum.
“The lack of support and origin of these hate crimes stem from the erasure of Asian American history in education. I urge you to recognize that ignoring our past invalidates the struggles that AAPI [people] experience, which feeds into the oppression and marginalization of Asians that our education denies,” Chang wrote.
Half Taiwanese and half Korean, she said videos and infographics on Instagram have supplemented the education she didn’t get in the classroom.
“I wish that I had learned more about the depth of Yellow Peril in school,” she said, referring to the centuries-old xenophobic fear of East Asia in the West. “I feel like now social media has increased our knowledge and our understanding of where we come from.”
Acknowledging The Contributions Of All Americans
Some parts of the country are gaining traction in changing their social studies curriculum after the Atlanta shootings. In July, the Teaching Equitable Asian American Community History Act became law in Illinois. It requires Asian American history to be taught in public schools, making Illinois the first state to adopt such a mandate.
In Texas, a fast tracked standards review presents an opportunity for change. Last year, students launched a petition calling for anti-racist curriculum, and pushed the State Board of Education to accelerate its social studies curriculum review. Originally scheduled for 2023, the review of social studies TEKS has been pushed up to the 2021-2022 school year.
Still, educators, learning advocates and experts agree that the lack of Asian American history in schools is a complex issue that will need to go beyond changing standards and textbooks.
“It's not one thing that, hey as long as we have Asian American Studies curriculum, that's going to solve all their problems,” Mehta said.
The educator said schools must also focus on improving training for teachers and recruiting Asian American teachers who better reflect diverse student populations.
It’s also about the mentality leaders have in addressing these issues, Mehta said. Instead of justifying the need for more Asian American history because of the growing population, it’s about acknowledging the humanity and diversity of all students.
“It should be because we envision a world in which defining American doesn't look one certain way, in which we acknowledge the contributions of all people in building this society,” he said.
In Texas, the standards, textbooks, teaching and politics have created an atmosphere where Asian American history is mostly absent. While discussions about inclusive standards and skirmishes over legislation persist, Texas students continue to miss out on Asian American history in the classroom.
Like Chaiprasert, who’s left thinking about how her school experience could’ve been different.
“I wish I learned more about Asian [American] history,” she said, adding that there’s European history classes, so why not Asian American history classes?
“Maybe it's because we're in America,” she wondered aloud.
Reflecting on her experience in Texas public schools, Chang said the opportunity to learn more about Asian American history would positively impact her community, maybe even the country at large.
“I do feel like what we're taught in school, especially at a young age, where our minds are kind of molded. Essentially, that does trickle into the perception of many Asian Americans in the United States today.”
Former KERA Intern Sriya Reddy contributed to this report.
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