Advancing a national Asian American Pacific Islander curricula

A look at how the Asian American Foundation’s STAATUS Index is bringing light to the Asian American experience in education.

Marchers in traditional Chinese costumes during the annual Chinese New Year Parade in Lower Manhattan.

Marchers in traditional Chinese costumes during the annual Chinese New Year Parade in Lower Manhattan. Photo by Ryan Rahman/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

While the first major wave of Asian Americans arrived in the U.S. more than a century ago, most Americans have trouble naming any Asian American historical events, let alone public figures. This feeling of cultural erasure and invisibility is a common feature of the Asian American experience – one that Asian American nonprofits aim to disrupt through the expansion of Asian American Pacific Islander curricula across the United States. 

Launched during the COVID-19 pandemic, The Asian American Foundation’s STAATUS Index is the first of its kind in documenting the impact of AAPI perceptions on the community's progress, self-perception and treatment by other groups. The Asian American community, despite boasting a wide diaspora of ethnicities and cultures, is often mistaken for a monolith – with stereotypes such as the “model minority myth” often dominating the mainstream narrative, in turn erasing the varied facets of its subgroups.  

According to STAATUS’ latest findings, despite a general decrease in violence targeted towards AAPI communities, Asian Americans are still experiencing high levels of discrimination and hate. 

“Only one in three Americans think that hate towards Asian Americans increased in the last four months. But 61% of Asian Americans feel that the hate that they've experienced has actually increased in the last 12 months,” said Sruthi Chandrasekaran, TAAF’s director of data and research. “One of the key takeaways from this year is a disconnect between what the American public thinks is happening to the community and how we actually feel.”

Nearly one in three Asian Americans had been called a racial or ethnic slur in the last month, followed by nearly 3 in 10 having been verbally harassed or abused, with a majority of individuals feeling unsafe or uncomfortable. These findings echo TAAF’s Asian American Perspectives: NYC Safety Study, which reported that 1 in 5 Asian American New Yorkers had been assaulted in the last year, with 54% of hate incidents going unreported. 

“We asked people why they don't report, and the top answer was that people don't want to bring attention to themselves. And it sort of silences that feeling that we're not seen as part of the fabric [of America] – it silences our community,” said Chandrasekaran. 

Yet while many struggle with a fear of visibility, a lack of coverage of such incidents appears to perpetuate the lack of acceptance felt by the AAPI community at large. According to TAAF, one of the driving factors of this continued sense of disconnection is the underrepresentation of AAPI historical events and cultural icons within the mainstream American psyche.

“Among factors that are leading to this, there is lack of understanding, lack of seeing us as part of society, seeing us as outsiders and not understanding our issues. We have some questions [asking] if folks can name a historical event or policy that relates to Asian Americans, and the majority, 55%, say nothing comes to mind,” added Chandrasekaran. 

These scarce representations reflect the invisibility felt by AAPI communities, often feeding into misleading stereotypes and inaccurate attitudes. Thus, in order to disrupt these stereotypes, TAAF advocates point to the importance of increasing AAPI visibility in media, government and education. 

Changing the narrative

Through an expansion of Illinois' TEAACH Act –  the first to mandate AAPI history into school curricula, TAAF's aims to increase awareness of AAPI issues, by allowing students to study historical events that resonate with their lived experiences. 

TAAF’s TEAACH Field Guide, co-authored with Asian Americans Advancing Justice, serves as a roadmap for advocates, policymakers and educators to implement AAPI history within K-12 curriculums across states. Building from the momentum of Illinois’ landmark TEAACH Act, TAAF and state advocacy organizations have worked to successfully change K-12 curriculums in Connecticut, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Florida and most recently in Wisconsin. By helping educators teach historical events tailored to the specific regional AAPI representation of each district, TAAF aims to retrofit U.S. classrooms with curriculums that reflect the diversity of its students – empowering them to feel seen within their communities. 

“We believe that teaching AAPI history can really support the positive identity development of AAPI young people, to really embrace and find strength in their cultural identities and be proud of who they are. To know that they belong, in their schools, in their communities, in this country, and affirm their agency and ability to make change in this world,” April Yee, director of education at TAAF, told New York Nonprofit Media.

Ultimately, these inclusive curriculums aim to reduce harmful stereotypes and discrimination – attitudes which can be perpetuated by fellow students and teachers. However, much of the resistance that prevents the TEAACH Act’s expansion lies in the difficulty of implementing new materials within the web of educational mandates and overburdened teachers. 

“Often new things take a while to get adopted: teachers are under a lot of pressure. They have a huge responsibility meeting state standards, integrating new content and dealing with different student needs and families,” Yee said. “So, the resistance is not so much, active or intentional. It’s often that [teachers] are juggling so much.” 

While TAAF plans to make headway into curriculums in California and New York state –  New York City remains ahead of the curve, as one of the few cities to mandate AAPI K-12 education thanks to its Hidden Voices of New York City project. The Hidden Voices teaching guide aims to expose students to the diverse, hyper-localized history of New York, incorporating nuanced historical figures hailing from AAPI, African-American, LatinX descent and more. 

TAAF is currently working on a curriculum repository which will be available come August, but within classrooms, youth activists are leading the charge towards advancing AAPI issues. 

“High school students, middle school students are going to their local state boards of education,” said Yee. “In Texas, students are going to the state board of education, saying, ‘We want to learn our own history, why is that controversial?’”