Harold Howe II, a leading American educator who as commissioner of education in the 1960s put into effect Johnson administration measures that signaled sweeping change in the nation's schools, died Nov. 30 at a continuing care retirement community in Hanover, N.H. He was 84.

Before the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the public schools, traditionally under local control, could expect only limited federal support. The act, one of many measures that the Lyndon B. Johnson administration aimed at fostering equality and bringing about social betterment, changed that.

"I had the job of setting up a system for doing something nobody had ever done before," said Mr. Howe, who was widely known as "Doc." Not only did Mr. Howe face the mechanics of getting the cash to the classrooms; he also was responsible for making certain that schools receiving federal funds met the requirements of the new civil rights law.

"In effect," Mr. Howe told a meeting convened to honor him early in 2000, "we took on the job of desegregating the southern schools so that we could give them Title I money."

In the view of some historians, Johnson was truly the nation's "education president." In this view, it was Mr. Howe who -- to the extent it could be done -- put Johnson's hopes, wishes and programs into effect, at a time that may have marked the high point of the effort to desegregate the schools.

"I think he contributed more to American education than almost anybody I can think of in the last half-century," said Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, president of George Washington University, who had worked with him.

"He saw to it that all federal programs were provided forcefully and equally," Trachtenberg said.

The programs that Mr. Howe put into effect were controversial and often criticized, particularly by conservative legislators from the South who saw them as unwarranted interference into local matters. When he was called the "commissioner of integration," it was not intended as a compliment.

Amid the turbulence, Mr. Howe stood his ground. Admired for his bluntness and courage, he did not fit the profile of dilettantish do-gooder. A Navy minesweeper captain in World War II, he had experience in education as teacher, principal and school superintendent. A review in The Washington Post in 1994 of his book "Thinking About Our Kids" described him as a "font of wisdom and good sense" about children and schools.

After leaving the Office of Education in 1968, Mr. Howe joined the Ford Foundation, becoming a vice president concerned with education and philanthropy. After leaving the foundation in 1981, he became a senior lecturer from 1982 to 1994 at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education.

In addition to his writing, he was known for continuing efforts at fostering excellence in the schools and for his concern about the possible harm inflicted on minorities and the poor by the growing movement toward instituting uniform tests and standards.

"Poor parents need to be educated and helped, so they can do what middle-class parents do," Mr. Howe said in an interview late in life. "Poor children need more contact with committed adults who like them and whom they like; poor communities need to be provided with whatever it takes to educate their children in school and outside of school."

In objecting to the standards movement, he said: "You test kids who have poor lives and inadequate schooling, flunk them and say they didn't meet the standards. You must first improve their lives and schooling, and then give the test."

Mr. Howe, who was born in Hartford, Conn., on Aug. 17, 1918, came from an old American family with deep roots in the effort to improve education for blacks. His grandfather Samuel Chapman Armstrong had been a Union general in the Civil War. After the war, he helped found what is now Hampton University, a historically black institution.

His father, the Rev. Arthur Howe, became president of Hampton, and some of Mr. Howe's childhood was spent there.

Mr. Howe graduated from Yale University in 1940, taught at a private school for a year and then joined the Navy. The Navy taught him, he said, that "your crew will perform better if everyone knows why they are being asked to do things, and not when they're told, 'Just do it.' "

After his 1945 discharge, he taught history at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., obtained a master's degree from Columbia University and then held principal's posts at Andover High School and at Walnut Hills High School in Cincinnati.

He then became principal of highly regarded Newton (Mass.) High School and superintendent of schools in the upscale New York suburb of Scarsdale. John W. Gardner, later to become secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, was active there in the PTA, and he recommended Mr. Howe to Johnson.

He was married in 1940 to the former Priscilla Lamb, and they had three children.