A group of eighth-grade teachers sat down to review a student’s data in preparation for an upcoming meeting. The student was reading at approximately a third-grade level. She struggled with determining the sounds and meaning of even basic words, and it was clear she could benefit from practice in phonics and fluency.

So for her Individualized Education Program, the team drafted this goal:

“Given intervention in phonics and opportunities for repeated timed readings, Zadie will be able to read a 5th grade level text at 110 words per minute with 96% accuracy as measured by running record once per quarter.”

Problem was, that middle school didn’t have a phonics program. And repeated timed readings weren’t something that occurred on a regular basis in any classroom. And fifth-grade-level texts were definitely not what was being required of Zadie to read in each of her classrooms.

So they had a great goal on paper that they couldn’t, in reality, help their student achieve.

IEPs have great potential to provide concrete, useful guidance to teachers about how to meet their students’ needs. The disconnect between a student’s goals and a school’s capacity for intervention is common, though, and is becoming more so as the city’s special education reforms force schools to confront the reality of what services and interventions they can and cannot provide.

That leaves schools trying to achieve a tricky balance: being specific about what it can provide for an individual student, while at the same time striving to transform the outcomes for every student. But to be effective, a student’s plan must connect to what a school can and will actually provide.

In a recent story on the impact of the city’s special education reforms, Chalkbeat reporter Patrick Wall noted that “a school can’t offer what it doesn’t have.” One parent describes the frustrating experience of her son not getting his needs met: “‘Let us open the door to your kid,’ Margaret said, describing the school’s response to the reform, ‘but then we don’t know what to do with him.’”

The benefit of the reform is that schools are being pushed to figure out “what to do.” Too many schools were saying, “Sorry, can’t meet that student’s needs. He can’t function in our school.” Then, the student would be sent to a more isolated District 75 program for students with severe needs.

Patrick points to the tension that can lie between the ideals laid out in a student’s plan and the reality of what schools can provide. Faced with that disparity, he writes, “Schools sometimes adjust the IEPs to match the services they can actually offer, according to parents, advocates, and educators … Other times, schools may simply fail to offer the services prescribed by an IEP.”

The more concrete and specific a school is about what it can provide to support students, the more likely it will be able to deliver those services. And the more quickly and honestly a school can assess when it fails to meet the needs of a student, the more swiftly that school can move to build its capacity. Or, as a last resort, the more quickly that student can be found a more appropriate placement.

In other words, in order for a student’s plan to have a tangible impact, it must be part of a process of continuous improvement that can be consistently delivered. In the absence of any such connection to the capacity of the school’s teachers and service providers, that student is much less likely to have any support, and the IEP will remain mere words on paper.

I want to be clear that I’m not arguing that a school should modify a student’s IEP so that the school’s needs are met, rather than the student’s. Schools can do much, much more to meet the needs of a diverse set of students.

What I’m arguing is that a school and a student both have to negotiate. A school needs to figure out exactly where it is failing to meet student needs, then develop its capacity. If a school can’t provide tangible support for a student who needs it, then that school might not be the best place for that student. This does happen, and we need to be honest about this when it does.

But we also need to be honest about when we can do better as a school to meet each of our students’ needs. And we can thank the special education reforms for pushing us to do so.

Here are some related questions I’m grappling with: How can a school systematically meet the needs of students facing great academic challenges in each classroom? How can a school help support students with special needs in accessing the same curriculum as that of their peers, while offering the individual support they may require? Please share your ideas and experiences in the comments.