Bell, Terrel Howard

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Bell, Terrel Howard

(b. 11 November 1921 in Lava Hot Springs, Idaho; d. 22 June 1996 in Salt Lake City, Utah), career educator who as secretary of education institutionalized the department and placed school reform on the national agenda.

Bell was one of nine children born to Willard Dewain Bell and Alta Martin, an Idaho farm couple. Known as “Ted” to his family, he was only nine when his father died; he learned the value of education from his mother. As high school valedictorian in a one-building school system, Bell delivered his address in a suit donated by his teachers. Two subsequent years at Albion State Normal School, at $11.50 a term, were idyllic. Dedicated teachers taught him to love learning and made Bell a lifelong advocate of “open access” community colleges. An energetic man who stood five feet, five inches tall, he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps during World War II and spent three and a half years in the Pacific theater, returning as a first sergeant eager to take advantage of the GI bill. After receiving his B.A. degree from Southern Idaho College of Education (1946), Bell worked as a high school science teacher and athletic coach in rural Idaho before becoming administrator of the Rockland Valley school district (1947–1954). He received an M.S. in educational administration from the University of Idaho (1954) and was a Ford Foundation scholar at Stanford University (1954–1955). His 1 August 1957 marriage to Elizabeth Ruth Fitzgerald lasted until his death and produced four sons. Bell headed school districts in Wyoming and Utah while earning his doctorate at the University of Utah (1961).

In 1962 Bell became professor and chairman of the department of educational administration at Utah State University. A year later he was appointed superintendent of public instruction for the state of Utah, serving also on the state’s vocational education board. He was appalled when teachers declared a two-day “recess” from their jobs in May 1964, but he later became a supporter of collective bargaining rights for instructional staff. Bell’s national career began in April 1970, when he was named associate commissioner for regional office coordination at the Office of Education in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW); when his superior resigned, he became acting commissioner of education as the nation fought over segregation and busing. Little in Bell’s background seemed to prepare him for the rigors of the capital, and his Mormon religion made him suspect to civil rights leaders. Bell opposed busing as the sole means to ensure integration, but his total lack of bias and his placement of federal fiscal monitors in southern school districts accused of violating educational assistance programs won him vast respect. He was commissioner for seven crucial months during confirmation proceedings for a successor, and then became deputy commissioner for school systems. After September 1971 he headed the Granite School District in Salt Lake City, where his innovations included home-based preschool training; night courses in health, child psychology, and “skills of parenting”; and family counseling. Your Child’sIntellect (1972) attempted to mobilize parents and schools in the service of young people.

Selected by President Richard Nixon to become commissioner of education, Bell won easy Senate confirmation on 5 June 1974. He worked well with HEW secretary Caspar Weinberger, and both later served in President Ronald Reagan’s cabinet. Bell believed that inequities in funding public school districts could be alleviated by restructuring districts to create reasonably comparable tax bases. He argued that zoning, urban renewal, economic isolation, and social pathology in ghetto areas were all factors determining school performance, and that racial balance without social change was meaningless. Although federal money could encourage innovation, he believed that responsibility for educational excellence lies primarily with state and local leaders, with parents being the ultimate authority. Bell continued to serve the administration of President Gerald Ford before returning to professorial life in Utah.

The U.S. Department of Education, created by the administration of President Jimmy Carter in May 1980, immediately became a target for Republican conservatives who charged that it improperly expanded the national government’s role over a local prerogative. One theme of Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign was abolition of the “great bureaucratic joke,” and on 8 January 1981 Bell was offered the position of secretary of education with the implicit task of fulfilling Reagan’s pledge. Bell, however, believed the federal government played a limited yet vital role in education. The only nonmillionaire in the cabinet, Bell arrived in the capital prepared to battle “movement conservatives” who sought to destroy the department. His memoir, The Thirteenth Man (1988), chronicles four unpleasant years in the cabinet as Bell defended his department against those who sought to abolish it. He tenaciously fought bureaucratic battles with the Office of Management and Budget for sufficient funding, continued aid to handicapped students, and opposed a “mean-spirited” Justice Department reluctant to press civil rights enforcement. Liberals feared Bell’s intentions while conservatives found him wanting in fervor, but he believed he could streamline the department and make Reagan appreciate the federal role in education. As early as the summer of 1981 he was rated the fifth most effective cabinet member, “doing a good job of working himself out of a job.”

Because the Reagan administration opposed any national study of education, Bell independently ordered an examination of schools in the United States. His National Commission on Excellence in Education produced A Nation at Risk (26 April 1983) and began the movement for educational reform in America. It was “difficult to find a compliment on any page” of a report that discovered “a rising tide of mediocrity” threatening national survival. The United States had fallen behind other nations in education and had “masses of illiterate and unemployable” youths; if a foreign power had done to Americans what they did to themselves it would have been an act of war. The report demanded system-wide change: emphasis on basics in primary grades, higher requirements for high school graduation, stricter college admission standards, better teacher pay including merit awards, and a longer school year. Within a year forty-eight states had toughened standards, and the tireless secretary began to issue lists of high-achieving schools and comparative charts rating state performance. Bell denounced publishers for “dumbing down” textbooks, and his crusade transformed education into a winning Reagan campaign theme in 1984.

In November 1984 Bell discovered that despite his efforts the Department of Education was targeted for additional budget cuts. He resigned. But he had successfully institutionalized the department, and Reagan praised the “Secretary of Excellence” when Bell returned to the University of Utah. There he collected numerous honorary doctorates (forty-four), spoke out for equal educational opportunity, and managed a consulting firm, T. H. Bell and Associates. Bell also taught Sunday school, performed community service, and enjoyed his growing family. He died of pulmonary fibrosis and is buried in Salt Lake City. His skill preserved a federal role in education against the “most anti-education administration in this century.”

Bell’s writings detail his educational philosophy. Effective Teaching: How to Recognize and Reward Competence (1962) and A Performance Accountability System for School Administrators (1972) approach schools from the top, while A Philosophy of Education for the Space Age: A Guide to Practical Thinking about the Aims and Purposes of Education Today (1963), Your Child’s Intellect: A Guide to Home-based Preschool Education (1972), written with Arden R. Thorem, and Active Parent Concern: A New Home Guide to Help Your Child Do Better in School (1976) advocate increased parental involvement in education. His battle to maintain the Department of Education is presented in The Thirteenth Man: A Reagan Cabinet Memoir (1988). How to Shape Up Our Nation’s Schools: Three Crucial Steps for Renewing American Education (1991), written with Donna L. Elmquist, distills his ideas, but A Nation at Risk (1983) offers an as-yet-unfulfilled platform. Obituaries may be found in the New York Times and Deseret News (both 24 June 1996).

George J. Lankevich