Federal Explainer

Terrel H. Bell, Second U.S. Education Secretary: Biography and Achievements

By Education Week Library — August 18, 2017 2 min read
President Ronald Reagan is flanked by Education Secretary Terrel Bell, left, White House Policy director, during a meeting in the Cabinet Room in Washington, Feb. 23, 1984 where they discussed school discipline.

Biographical Information: Bell was born Nov. 11, 1921, in Lava Hot Springs, Idaho. Other than his stint in the Marines during World War II, he spent most of his life working in education. He began as a high school teacher and bus driver in Idaho and then served in multiple leadership roles before going to Washington to serve in the federal Office of Education, then part of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. In 1974, he served as the U.S. commissioner of education.

Bell wrote numerous books, including his memoir titled The Thirteenth Man: A Reagan Cabinet Memoir, published in 1988. It was criticized by his successor, William J. Bennett, who said there “should be a limit on how much someone kisses and tells.” But others appreciated the book’s candid insights into the education policy controversies of an administration that had pledged to abolish the new U.S. Department of Education. He died June 22, 1996.

Served Under: President Ronald Reagan

Dates of Tenure: 1981-1984

Fun Fact: The Terrel H. Bell Award for Outstanding Leadership is awarded each year to a small number of principals who demonstrate outstanding leadership.

Highlights of Tenure:

  • Initially appointed to oversee the abolition of the Education Department, Bell is often credited with saving it.
  • Bell oversaw the publication of the landmark report “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform” in 1983, which argued for strong measures to end a “rising tide of mediocrity” in American schools.
  • Bell resigned his post in 1984, citing his family business, a pending lawsuit, and his Utah state pension as reasons for leaving.

Archives of Note:

Bell Says Panel’s Work Confirms Academic Decline The National Commission on Excellence in Education is uncovering evidence that corroborates widely held beliefs regarding declines in achievement among the nation’s students, according to Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell. (Sept. 22, 1982)

Bell Says ‘Moderate’ Federal Role Accepted Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell told an audience of state education officials last month that he had won a two-year battle to establish a “moderate” federal role in education. (Apr. 6, 1983)

Bell Bids Washington Farewell; Will Return to Utah, Academe Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell ended months of speculation about his future by announcing last week that he would resign his post effective Dec. 31. President Reagan accepted his letter of resignation “with deep regret.” (Nov 14, 1984)

Bell Recounts Tenure as Chief Of ED in Book In a forthcoming memoir of his Reagan administration days, former Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell portrays himself as an embattled champion of education interests, fighting the conservative “true believers” and “White House ideologues” who sought to wipe out the federal presence in both education and civil-rights enforcement. (Oct. 28, 1987)

Terrel Bell, Known for Defending Federal Role in Education, Dies Terrel H. Bell served as U.S. secretary of education under President Ronald Reagan from 1981-85. (July 10, 1996)

    Additional Resources
    The University of Utah Department of Education Alumnus Biography A brief biography from the alumni pages of the University of Utah’s College of Education
    The Thirteenth Man: A Reagan Cabinet Memoir A link to the Amazon listing of Bell’s memoir

    How to Cite This Article
    Education Week Library. (2017, August 18). Terrel H. Bell, Second U.S. Education Secretary: Biography and Achievements. Education Week. Retrieved Month Day, Year from https://www.edweek.org/policy-politics/terrell-h-bell-second-u-s-education-secretary-biography-and-acheivements/2017/08

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