September 15 marks the 125th birthday of Dame Agatha Christie, author of nearly 100 whodunit mysteries, which have sold over two billion copies worldwide, making her the best-selling novelist of all time. Only the Bible and Shakespeare have sold more than Dame Agatha has, and her murder drama “The Mousetrap” (1952) is the longest–running play of the modern era.
Parents and teachers know young readers enjoy entertaining tales with clever detectives like Sherlock Holmes, the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and Christie’s characters, who solve gripping crimes and murder mysteries.
Thanks in part to a healthy dose of such stories, from 2005 to 2013, Massachusetts students topped their counterparts from every other state on each administration of the reading portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), known as “the nation’s report card.”
The academic results Massachusetts students have achieved are a tribute to the higher-level vocabulary and twisting narratives in timeless fiction and drama. Christie’s language is qualitatively superior to that found in most of the “informational texts” prominently featured in nationalized K-12 standards known as Common Core.
In particular, the commonwealth’s girls have excelled under the state’s formerly literature-centric English standards and exams that were developed for Massachusetts’ landmark 1993 education reforms. Since 2001, the Bay State’s eighth-grade girls have achieved a ten-point advantage over boys in percentages scoring “advanced” or “proficient” on MCAS English testing.
Reading classic literature pays other valuable academic dividends, too. As standards and curriculum expert Sandra Stotsky explains: “Reading precedes writing; good writers are always good readers first.”
“Until one looks back on one’s own past one fails to realize what an extraordinary view of the world a child has,” wrote Christie in her autobiography. “The angle of vision is entirely different from that of the adult.”
Common Core Versus Agatha Christie
In 2010, Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration killed off Massachusetts’ proven, literature-rich English standards for $250 million in federal grant money to adopt Common Core and national testing, which will cut the classic fiction Bay State students read by 60 percent.
Two recent national polls make clear that Common Core is now toxic with the public, teachers, and parents. Even a Core supporter like Jeb Bush has called it “poisonous.”
Meanwhile, more than half the states have dropped out of the two Common Core-aligned federal testing consortia. According to the Boston Globe, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), the consortium Massachusetts is affiliated with, is in “a death spiral.”
With its Inspector Clouseau-style intellectual incoherence, Common Core excludes our civilization’s major detective stories from its list of so-called “exemplar texts.” Nevertheless, College Board president and Common Core architect David Coleman continually lectures English teachers that, “It is you… who have this obligation [to teach students] to read like a detective…”
Coincidentally, the first sentence of Christie’s “The House of Beauty,” the first short story she drafted about “madness and dreams,” reads: “He made a brave, desperate attempt to capture his dream as it slipped past him and failed.”
Complex Literature, Compelling Characters
Christie’s mysteries have simple plots and play out in cozy, isolated, and exotic settings like islands, trains, ships, and country estates. There, a collection of often financially motivated murder suspects are gradually brought to justice by the logical inductive and deductive reasoning of detectives like Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple.
Dame Agatha’s masterpiece “And Then There Were None” (1939) has sold 100 million copies, making it the best-selling mystery of all time. Her other novels, “Murder on the Orient Express” (1934) and “Death on the Nile” (1937), are also international best-sellers. For generations, young and old alike have adored “the Queen of Crime.”
Massachusetts education policymakers face a critical choice this November: keep the proven MCAS test and begin the process of returning to our historically successful, homegrown, and literature-laden English standards, or adopt nationalized tests developed by the PARCC, which will lock us into Common Core’s academic mediocrity.
Governors Patrick and Charlie Baker were English majors at Harvard College, and David Coleman studied literature at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. They should be concerned about the likelihood that Common Core and PARCC will all but end students’ exposure to the classic mysteries that have served the Bay State’s public schools so well.