Federal Explainer

Shirley Hufstedler, First U.S. Education Secretary: Biography and Achievements

By Education Week Library Staff — August 18, 2017 2 min read
Shirley M. Hufstedler is sworn in as the nation's first Secretary of Education by Chief Justice Warren Burger, right, while her husband, Seth, holds a Bible, on Dec. 6, 1979. President Jimmy Carter looks on at left.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Biographical Information: Hufstedler was born Aug. 24, 1925, in Denver. She attended the University of New Mexico and then obtained a law degree from Stanford University. Before becoming the first U.S. education secretary in 1979, Hufstedler served as a federal appeals court judge and as a California appeals court judge. After shepherding the newly created Education Department through its first years, Hufstedler returned to practicing and teaching law in 1981. She then worked at the Morrison & Foerster law firm, in Los Angeles, for over 20 years. She died March 30, 2016.

Served Under: President Jimmy Carter

Dates of Tenure: 1979-1981

Fun Fact: She went to 12 different schools between 2nd and 7th grade.

Achievements in Office: As the department’s first secretary, her chief responsibilities were helping to shift education policy work from what was then the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to the new stand-alone Cabinet-level Education Department, and sharing input on key staff appointments during and after that transition.

Archives of Note:

Cuts Will Do Long-Term Damage, Former Secretary Hufstedler Says
Former U.S. Secretary of Education Shirley M. Hufstedler warned last week that “the budget struggles on the Potomac right now will have very serious consequences for every aspect of the American educational systems not only in this decade, but well into the next century.” (May 5, 1982)

Educators Remain Split Over Cabinet-Level Agency
When the U.S. Department of Education opened its doors on May 4, 1980, advocates of adding the agency to the Cabinet hoped the move would bring greater visibility and status to education issues, both within the government and in the eyes of the nation. Ten years later, opinion remains divided on the effect and desirability of Cabinet status for education. (May 9, 1990)

Standards Issue Puts Ex-Education Secretaries at Odds
All five former U.S. secretaries of education, meeting in a forum last month in Atlanta, agreed that it is important to hold students to high standards. But they failed to find common ground on who should set the standards, how students should be evaluated, whether money should be tied to the imposition and achievement of standards, and the proper role of the federal government. (Jan. 12, 1993)

Panel Urges Greater Focus on Immigrant Children’s Needs
Urging greater Americanization of immigrants, a bipartisan, congressionally established panel called last week for increased attention to and resources for immigrant children in school. (Oct. 8, 1997)

First-Ever Education Secretary Had a Groundbreaking Tenure at the Department
Shirley M. Hufstedler, who died March 30 at age 90, put her stamp on the new agency at a turbulent time during the Carter administration. (Apr. 1, 2016)

    Additional Resources
    Shirley Hufstedler Papers A guide to memoranda, correspondence, reports, briefing materials, and speeches relating to Hufstedler’s role as education secretary now stored at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum
    University of Virginia’s Miller Center A brief biography focused on her role as secretary
    American Bar Association Women Trailblazers A brief biography, interviews, photos, and documents

    How to Cite This Article
    Education Week Library Staff. (2017, August 18). Shirley Hufstedler, First U.S. Education Secretary: Biography and Achievements. Education Week. Retrieved Month Day, Year from https://www.edweek.org/policy-politics/shirley-hufstedler-first-u-s-education-secretary-biography-and-acheivements/2017/08


    English-Language Learners Webinar Helping English-Learners Through Improved Parent Outreach: Strategies That Work
    Communicating with families is key to helping students thrive – and that’s become even more apparent during a pandemic that’s upended student well-being and forced constant logistical changes in schools. Educators should pay particular attention
    This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
    Mathematics Webinar
    Addressing Unfinished Learning in Math: Providing Tutoring at Scale
    Most states as well as the federal government have landed on tutoring as a key strategy to address unfinished learning from the pandemic. Take math, for example. Studies have found that students lost more ground
    Content provided by Yup Math Tutoring
    Classroom Technology Webinar Building Better Blended Learning in K-12 Schools
    The pandemic and the increasing use of technology in K-12 education it prompted has added renewed energy to the blended learning movement as most students are now learning in school buildings (and will likely continue

    EdWeek Top School Jobs

    Teacher Jobs
    Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
    View Jobs
    Principal Jobs
    Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
    View Jobs
    Administrator Jobs
    Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
    View Jobs
    Support Staff Jobs
    Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
    View Jobs

    Read Next

    Federal Schools Could Count Nonbinary Students Under Biden Proposal
    The Civil Rights Data Collection for this school year could also revive questions about inexperienced teachers and preschool discipline.
    6 min read
    Image of a form with male and female checkboxes.
    Federal 'Parents' Bill of Rights' Underscores Furor Over Curriculum and Transparency in Schools
    U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley's bill highlights how education issues like critical race theory will likely stay in the national political spotlight.
    7 min read
    Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., speaks during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the conclusion of military operations in Afghanistan and plans for future counterterrorism operations, Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
    U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., says "it's time to give control back to parents, not woke bureaucrats."
    Patrick Semansky/AP
    Federal Opinion It’s Not Just the NSBA That’s Out of Touch. There’s a Bigger Problem
    Those who influence educational policy or practice would do well to care about what parents and the public actually want.
    4 min read
    Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
    DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
    Federal Dept. of Ed., Florida Continue to Battle Over Ban on School Mask Mandates
    Federal officials say they’ll intervene if the Florida Dept. of Ed. goes ahead with sanctions on districts with mask mandates.
    Ana Ceballos, Miami Herald
    2 min read
    Florida Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran speaks alongside Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, rear right, Fla. Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., left, state legislators, parents and educators, Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021, at the Doral Academy Preparatory School in Doral, Fla.
    Florida Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran speaks alongside Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, rear right, Fla. Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., left, state legislators, parents and educators, Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021, at the Doral Academy Preparatory School in Doral, Fla.
    Wilfredo Lee/AP