Educators moved away from those methods in part due to cultural shifts emphasizing student empowerment through self-expression, but also because there was significant evidence that they did not actually work. Students who could diagram sentences well were not becoming better writers; they already were better writers.
So what was the New Dorp High revolution about? What made the difference?
First of all, it involved a single, sustained, school-wide focus. This is a much bigger deal than you might think if you do not work in schools. If you do, you will marvel at what principal Deirdre DeAngeles accomplished in picking one thing, getting everyone on board, and then sticking with it. Tyre writes,"By fall 2009, nearly every instructional hour except for math class was dedicated to teaching essay writing along with a particular subject."
Reading that sentence as an English teacher who has been involved in more literacy-across-the-curriculum initiatives than I care to remember, I was filled with admiration and longing. How did they get all the teachers to do that? As many teachers at New Dorp would surely acknowledge, changing your teaching practice is profoundly uncomfortable. Most teachers will eventually get on board with what works, but their schools often change course before they even have a chance to find out what that is. New initiatives are introduced every year, and the old ones die quietly in file cabinets.
Somehow, New Dorp stuck with its idea, and teachers across the building threw their shoulders to the wheel. As staff developer Nell Scharff tells it, "Every quiz, every unit test, every homework assignment became a new data point. ...We combed through their writing. Again and again, we asked: 'How did the kids in our target group go wrong? What skills were missing?'"
These can be tremendously complex questions; student writing can go wrong in an immense number of intersecting ways. There are, of course, problems with grammar, logic, organization, style, and proofreading. Often there are code-switching errors, with kids writing in the vernacular they speak at home, or problems with genre conventions (especially thorny when students try to write literary criticism, the highly esoteric genre on which the classic "English paper" is modeled).
Worst of all is the category of problem that many English teachers just call "awk": awkward or convoluted syntax. This is what happens when kids simply haven't mastered enough linguistic structures to express anything but the simplest ideas. This is why basic narrative writing is easier for these kids: You only need one kind of sentence structure to tell your readers what happened first, next, and last.
Nothing we learned in education school or in our dozens of hours of mandatory professional development has given us the first idea about how to help kids with this problem, so we just throw the same feeble corrections at it again and again. We cross out the "although" at the beginning of the nonsensical sentence fragment "although George and Lenny are friends" (to quote a New Dorp student), and if we're feeling especially energetic, we explain in the margins how "although" makes the sentence a dependent clause. We might even mention it again in a "mini-lesson" to the whole class. Best-case scenario: The students who didn't know how to use "although" will be diligent enough to avoid using it again.