Although SEELS will focus on student outcomes and the characteristics of students, households, and the school and non-school factors that relate to them, there are important contextual factors that frame the environment in which special education operates and that influence the effectiveness with which schools perform their work. Below we briefly describe the four contexts that influence the delivery of special education in the United States. Only LEA and community factors are likely to be measured directly; others will be tracked as they evolve through the study and will help shape interpretations of findings.

Local Education Agency (LEA) context–Historically, the process of education has been viewed as a local phenomenon. LEAs often share many of the characteristics of the communities they serve in terms of size, population, and resources. However, LEAs with similar population characteristics may be quite variable in the procedural, policy, and personnel issues that are decided at the LEA level, which may influence student experiences and outcomes. Examples of potentially important factors at the LEA level include: district enrollment, population characteristics, and geographic characteristics. District policies and resources also may importantly influence school programs as they play out at the school level (see preceding discussion of school characteristics).

Community context–The lives of children and families, the nature and functioning of schools, and the relationships between them are shaped by the nature of their surrounding communities, in all their diversity. The initial conceptual framework recognizes the interconnections between community and educational factors and student outcomes, including such community characteristics as size and density, population characteristics, community resources, and community well-being.

State context–State governments have considerable direct influence over the conditions under which schools operate. State population characteristics, history, policies, and regulations can affect the nature of the education that all students receive, including those with disabilities. In addition, states control much of the eligibility and regulatory framework specific to special education and students in special education. The conceptual framework may include some of the factors at the state level, including size, population characteristics, geographic characteristics and policies.

National context–The desire to improve the quality of the American educational system is center stage in the national policy arena. Standards, curricula, accountability, and school choice issues are among the topics of intense discussion and proposed reforms. This national focus on the quality of American education defines the environment in which states, communities, schools, teachers, and children engage in the education process. This context is comprised of a combination of legislation, policy debates, advocacy positions, and model programs and initiatives that together influence the direction or tone of activities at all levels of the education system. Because special education and regular education issues are more linked than in the past, SEELS will need to reflect an understanding of the dynamics in both arenas.