Terrel H. Bell, one of the most obscure members of the Reagan Cabinet, never planned to stay long. He came to Washington with his belongings in a U-Haul truck, moved into a two-bedroom townhouse in Arlington with an excellent view of a gas station, and bought a couple of plastic lamps to furnish it.

"We've been sort of camping out ever since," Bell said in a holiday interview in his comfortable office on the sixth floor of the Education Department building.

Bell had hoped to have the department dismantled by early 1982, just in time to return to Utah for the ski season. That, of course, didn't happen.

Another year has passed, and the big news at the department is that there is no news, or at least very little, about its future. The department, leaner and ever more demoralized, is still in business, and Bell, despite repeated rumors about his leaving, is still at work.

He is in a strange limbo, almost forgotten in the backwaters of the bureaucracy. "I don't have any firm plans to leave, but I don't have any firm commitments on how long I'll stay," he said.

He hasn't had "a real recent conversation" with the president, but he said he is convinced that Reagan is "still committed to eliminating the Department of Education as an entity." ***

LAYOFFS . . . Despite an internal task force report recommending that almost 600 more jobs be cut, Bell insists that there will be no major layoffs in the department in 1983. Its work force is already down 26 percent from 1980, and it has had a hiring freeze in effect for most of the last two years. Rumors that 100 positions would be eliminated in the Office of Civil Rights are false, he says.

No more than 10 jobs there are endangered, and normal attrition is expected to take care of most of them. A major change in the way OCR operates is under way, however. It is now emphasizing the mediation of discrimination complaints with school and college officials instead of going after them with enforcement actions.***

TEACHERS . . . More discouraging words for parents. Not only are fewer students planning teaching careers, but the quality of future teachers is on the decline, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In 1972, about 150,000 high school seniors planned to major in education in college, compared with only 85,000 in 1980.

The biggest drop came among female students. Only 10 percent of college-bound senior women in 1980 planned to become teachers, compared with 18 percent in 1972. The "academic gap" between female education majors and those majoring in other subjects "appears to be widening," according to a report in the newsletter Education Daily. The center found that prospective teachers had lower scores on reading, vocabulary and math tests than students interested in other fields.

Bell, long critical of the teaching profession, has proposed that schools consider naming "master teachers," who would command the $40,000-plus salaries that top college professors earn. He has told recent meetings of educators in Atlanta and New York that the selection of such teachers by merit would help attract better-qualified teachers and keep them in the profession.***

THE RIGHT STUFF . . . Bell claims to be miffed by criticism that the Education Department has become a dumping ground for New Right political appointees. "We have representatives here of the whole broad span of the Republican Party," he said in an interview.

Asked to name a moderate or liberal named to a major education post, he replied: "I don't know if we have any liberal Republicans here, but we don't have the kind of people you could call ultra, ultra-conservatives."