Former D.C. school superintendent Vincent E. Reed, supported by the conservative Heritage Foundation and by persons seeking higher visibility of blacks in the Reagan administration, has emerged as the top contender for a subcabinet post in the Department of Education, according to administration sources.

The sources said the 52-year-old, back-to-basics educator has been recommended by Education Secretary Terrel H. Bell to be assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education. Reed's name is now within the inner circle of White House advisers most influential in the selection process. An announcement could be made as early as Monday, one source said.

Reed, who was one of the city's most popular public officials when he retired last December over conflicts with the D.C. school board, had at one point been seriously considered for the top post in education department because of his national reputation as a black educator and his experience in urban areas, according to one knowledgeable White House source. "He was on the short list," the source said.

But that position went to Bell, a former education commissioner who had worked in the Reagan transition.

Reed said yesterday, "Nobody has offered me any job," and insisted that he never sought or was interviewed for a post in the Education Department. "I understand a lot of people have recommended me, but I don't know half of them . . . I don't even know anybody at the Heritage Foundation," he said.

Reed, who changed his voter registration from Independent to Republican after he left the school system, said he is not sure he would take the job if it were offered to him. "I would have to see what it's all about," he said.

If confirmed, the husky humorous educator, a nuts-and-bolts manager credited with solving a number of administrative tangles in the public schools of the nation's capital, would preside over a staff charged with evaluating various education programs throughout the country and encouraging school systems to emulate successful ones.

But he would also be taking a job in a department scheduled to lose its cabinet status. And he could be stripped of one of the main functions of the job -- that of administering various federal grants, such as aid to disadvantaged children and aid for bilingual education, if the administration's proposal to have the states administer these grants is approved.

The forwarding of his name to the White House places Reed's fate in the hands of presidential aides who have been feuding over prospective appointments -- infighting that has led to the rejection of many cabinet contenders otherwise considered shoo-ins.

Earlier this year, for example, Bell selected Christopher T. Cross to be his undersecretary. Three weeks later, Cross learned that the appointment had been killed in the White House, apparently because of opposition from the Heritage Foundation and other conservatives and because Cross had not worked in any Reagan election campaigns.

Reed has not campaigned for Reagan, either. But he does have the foundation's support.

Foundation director Charles L. Heatherly said yesterday the organization was impressed with Reed's performance during the five years he was D.C. school superintendent, and that Reed's emphasis on basic skills would be helpful in the department. Heatherly also said that the foundation's staff felt that Reed was "on the right side" in his dispute with the school board, which the former superintendent accused of trying to usurp some of his administrative power.

Less than a handful of blacks have been appointed to top level posts in the Reagan administratin so far, even though more than 3,000 blacks have applied, according to one black close to the administration.

Reed, a former football star and champion boxer, spent much of his 25-year career in the public schools in secondary education.

He taught junior high school shop and mathematics, was principal of Wilson High School and assistant superintendent for secondary schools. His major push as superintendent was to have his staff devise a curriculum emphasizing the basic skills of reading and math.

Reed took over the D.C. schools after a tumultuous decade in which the school system lost all but 2 percent of its white enrollment; test scores dropped; teachers were not getting paid on time, and budgets were being overspent.

As a home-grown superintendent who knew numerous teachers and school employes, he brought a sense of stability to the system. His staff quickly solved the payroll problems and the system kept within its budget.

In the past two years, Reed instituted widespread changes in the District's educational program, first through the "competency-based curriculum," which requires students to master certain specific objectives and stresses an individualized learning program for each student.

When the test scores of D.C. students showed slight improvement last year, Reed quickly credited the change to the competency-based curriculum. His administration was also responsible for devising stiffer promotion standards for students and increasing the number of courses students must take for high school graduation.