During the first decade of the twentieth century, colleges and universities seeking to promote high standards and exceptional academic quality among their students began encouraging the formation of honor societies. This was particularly popular in the education field. From this, two primary education honor societies were formed: Phi Delta Kappa International® (PDK) and Pi Lambda Theta (PLT).
In 1906, PDK International was founded but was only open to men. In response, women on seven different campuses organized their own honor society in 1910. These seven groups became the founding chapters of Pi Lambda Theta in 1917 when PLT nationalized. These chapters included: University of Missouri (Alpha); Syracuse University (Beta); University of Kansas (Gamma); University of Pittsburgh (Delta); University of Minnesota (Epsilon); University of Washington (Zeta) and University of Pennsylvania (Eta). By 1930, there were over two dozen chapters, most located at university schools of education.
Membership in Pi Lambda Theta indicated high scholastic achievement and leadership in education. The women of PLT were extraordinary, given the education and professional position of women in society. Many Thetans earned doctoral degrees and went to work in school administration, educational research, teacher education, and even government jobs. Notable Thetans include Louise Stanley, former director of the U.S. Bureau of Home Economics, who was the highest ranking female scientist in the U.S. at that time, and Bess Goodykoontz, former U.S. deputy commissioner of education.
Expansion of Pi Lambda Theta
Until the mid to late 1940s, Pi Lambda Theta only permitted chapters to be located at university schools of education or in area chapters that really served as alumnae chapters for universities. This policy excluded the more numerous teachers colleges, in part because they were seen as having lower academic standards because many did not offer a four-year course of study or graduate work, which are the hallmarks of university schools of education.
However, by the 1940s, the curriculum at teachers colleges changed. And with these changes and with PLT’s desire to grow, the organization decided to permit chapters to be located at teachers colleges. By opening initiation to the graduates of these institutions, PLT expanded its membership and classroom teachers became a large majority of the membership.
Also notable was PLT’s decision to become coeducational in the early 1970s. With the grassroots pressure building for sex integration and the changed legal climate, PDK International decided to become coeducational and so Pi Lambda Theta did, too, only two months later.
In 2010, Pi Lambda Theta joined the PDK International family of associations, which includes PDK International and the Future Educators Association®. The three associations support a full spectrum of future and current educators. As such, they have an unprecedented opportunity to work together to support public education for all students.
Despite these numerous changes in membership, PLT has never lowered its standard of excellence and has always maintained its high membership standards. The grade point average (GPA) requirements for initiation still remain at 3.5 on a 4.0 scale today.
Finally, though Pi Lambda Theta is an honorary society, it is also a professional organization and has always engaged in activities that advance education. From as early as 1924, PLT offered a $1,000 scholarship to women engaged in educational research. For the time, the amount was quite generous.
Additionally, PLT has engaged in a number of research projects. One was a study of child-rearing practices conducted with the U.S. Bureau of Home Economics in 1928. Another was a commissioned study of women’s career opportunities in education done in 1933. During World War II, Pi Lambda Theta conducted a study of professional women’s contributions to the war effort, showing that women acted in professional and leadership capacities in their communities and states. Throughout this time, the national organization also provided study materials for each chapter so that yearly chapter programs could revolve around specific topics of study.
Publishing research and materials on education also was a part of PLT from its early years. Initially, the Pi Lambda Theta Journal not only served as a newsletter, but also published research articles. Over the years, the journal was re-titled Educational Horizons®. PLT also published two books on educational research in the 1960s: The Body of Knowledge Unique to the Profession and The Evaluation of Teaching. These texts were edited volumes summarizing the research discussed by major educational figures. Through these publications, PLT worked to inform educational research, expose PLT’s teacher members to the scholarship, and provide visibility to the organization within the profession.
Currently, PLT offers a host of resources—including publications, webinars, international travel programs, webinars, and professional learning opportunities— to help members develop themselves as professionals. Pi Lambda Theta has changed over its hundred-year history, but it has maintained its distinction as the most selective honorary and professional organization in education today. It continues to support members’ research and scholarship and promotes its members as professionals intent on lifelong learning.