The Commissioner of Education was the title given to the head of the federal Office of Education, which was historically a unit within and originally assigned to the Department of the Interior in the United States. The position was created on March 2, 1867, when an Act to establish the Office of Education took effect under the influence of the more Radical Republican Party. They were influential mostly in the Northern states and New England, which were much more progressive in the fields of education and had already established many state departments of education. They also had a large number of public schools and systems in cities, towns and counties, both at the elementary (grammar) school and high school levels, in which the South had lagged behind.[1]

The Commissioner was the U.S. government's highest education official from after the Civil War and its reforming period of Reconstruction in 1867, until 1972, when the office of Assistant Secretary for Education was established within the independent Department of Health, Education and Welfare. The H.E.W. department had been earlier created as a cabinet-level department in April 1953, under President Harry Truman, continuing the previous advances created by the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt and instigated under Dwight D. Eisenhower.[1] Ultimately, the head of the Federal Government's nationwide educational efforts was reorganized with the separation and division of old H.E.W. into the new United States Department of Education in 1979 under President Jimmy Carter, with its own Cabinet-level position of the U.S. Secretary of Education.


The Commissioner was responsible for:[2]

The Commissioner also served as an ex officio member of the District of Columbia Commission on Licensure, the Board of Foreign Scholarships and served as the governmental representative on the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).[3]


The independent federal Office of Education was created on March 2, 1867.[1] It became part of the U.S. Department of the Interior on July 1, 1889. The office (also known later as the Bureau of Education) was included in the Interior Department's Federal Security Agency when it was established on July 1, 1939.[1] The office was moved into the new U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare in April 1953, after Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman, accomplished shortly after the inauguration of Dwight D. Eisenhower

In 1972, Public Law 92-318 provided the repeal of a part of the law which had created the office of Commissioner of Education. The repeal took effect on July 1, 1972. The Office of Education ceased to exist. Although the Assistant Secretary of Education then became the highest federal education position, the office of Commissioner of Education continued to exist within the new United States Department of Health, Education and Welfare until 1979, when the post was phased out due to the creation of the divided and reorganized new Department of Education which also was part of the President's Cabinet with its office of the U.S. Secretary of Education.[1][4]

List of Commissioners of Education

Commissioner Term
Henry Barnard March 11, 1867–March 15, 1870
John Eaton March 16, 1870–August 5, 1886
Nathaniel H. R. Dawson August 6, 1886 – September 3, 1889
William T. Harris September 12, 1889 – June 30, 1906
Elmer E. Brown July 1, 1906– June 30, 1911
Philander P. Claxton July 1, 1911 – 1921
John James Tigert 1921–1928
William John Cooper 1929–1933
George F. Zook 1933–1934
John W. Studebaker 1934–1948
Earl James McGrath 1949–1953
Lee M. Thurston 1953 - 1953
Samuel Miller Brownell 1953–1956
Lawrence Gridley Derthick 1956–1961
Sterling M. McMurrin 1961–1962
Francis C. Keppel 1962–1965
Harold Howe II 1965–1968
James E. Allen, Jr. 1969–1970
Sidney P. Marland, Jr. 1970–1973
John R. Ottina 1973–1974
Terrel H. Bell 1974–1976
Edward Aguirre 1976–1977
Ernest L. Boyer 1977–1979
William L. Smith 1980


  1. ^ a b c d e "Federal Education Policymakers, 1941-2009" (PDF). States' Impact on Federal Education Policy Project. 2009. Retrieved 2012-01-04.
  2. ^ Knezevich, Stephen J. (1969), Administration of Public Education (2 ed.), New York: Harper & Row, p. 237, OCLC 12690
  3. ^ Knezevich, Stephen J. (1969), Administration of Public Education (2 ed.), New York: Harper & Row, p. 238, OCLC 12690
  4. ^ "Education", The Encyclopedia Americana, vol. 9, Danbury, Connecticut: Grolier, 2000, p. 740, OCLC 43838093

This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainGilman, D. C.; Peck, H. T.; Colby, F. M., eds. (1905). New International Encyclopedia (1st ed.). New York: Dodd, Mead. ((cite encyclopedia)): Missing or empty |title= (help)