President Reagan yesterday nominated Vincent E. Reed, the popular back-to-basics educator who abruptly resigned Dec. 31 as D.C. schools superintendent, to become assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education in the U.S. Department of Education.

Reed, 52, still needs to be confirmed by the Senate before taking his $52,750-a-year job. Reed, who changed his voter registration from Independent to Republican soon after he left the District schools, has been serving as a consultant to the education department, earning $192.72 a day, a department spokesman said.

The former superintendent said he will meet with Education Secretary Terrel Bell Monday to work out the details of his responsibilities. He said he has no fears about taking a job with a department that is slated to lose its cabinet status and an educational division whose funding the Reagan administration intends to cut by 25 percent.

"Regardless of what happens to the structure of the department, the services will still have to be rendered," said Reed, who ran the District schools for five years.

But them main duty of that job -- the administration of the many federal education grants, such as Title I for disadvantaged students -- is something the Reagan administration wants the states instead of the education department to do. Reed is the first former or present city official and one of the first blacks to be nominated by Reagan to a subcabinet post.

A department spokesman said Reed's future duties will be determined by the form the education department takes.

But for the immediate future, Reed will administer the federal grants and help with the organization of the department, the spokesman said. He said Reed also will be advising education department staffers as they draft legislation to insure that if education funds are handed out to the states in block grants, the monies are used for education.

Reed said he turned down 36 job offers, including some superintendencies, to take the job with the federal government. The education department job, he said, "gives me the chance to explore what can be done from a national base to improve education . . . It offers the possiblity of improving the status and opportunities of millions of young people across the country.

Bell, who has known Reed for years, praised Reed yesterday as "one of the nation's most able superintendents" and a "splendid man well known for his advocacy of quality and disciplined learning. I have admired his position on standards of academic achievement and prerequisites for promotion.

Reed had the support of the servative Heritage Foundation, which liked his emphasis as superintendent on basic skills, and those close to the Reagan administration who were seeking higher visibility of blacks in the adminstration.

Reed was seriously considered for the top post in the education department because of his national reputation as a black educator and his experience in an urban area, said one White House source. But the job went to Bell, a former education commissioner in the old Department of Health, Education and Welfare and a member of the Reagan transition team.

Reed spent most of his career before becoming superintendent, as a junior high school shop and mathematics teacher. He also was principal of Woodrow Wilson High School, director of District schools security and assistant superintendent for junior and senior high schools.