I’ve always thought that the primary reason for tenure at the collegiate level was economic. Intellectual freedom notwithstanding, without academic tenure, universities would either have to pay more for their faculty or wind up with worse faculty. Consider an undergraduate who might have loans to pay off. Then add five to eight years during which, if he is lucky, he doesn’t accumulate debt, but certainly isn’t saving any money. Then add the post-doc (at least one) where, again, there’s low wages and little savings. Follow that with five to nine years of running like hell, at which point you can receive tenure. If tenure weren’t available, few people would put up with that career trajectory, unless the pay were higher (an aside: I don’t have tenure security; my position is much more like working at a non-profit biotech company–and I get paid like it).
First, regarding compensation, let’s be honest: nobody gets into teaching to get rich. Very few of us are make big bucks by private sector standards even at the post-secondary level. So the salaries aren’t too big of a deal even though Florida’s are already $5000 below the national average. Florida teachers are doing better than a lot of people these days. That said, people teach for the same reason one becomes a civil servant – job security.
We already have a teacher shortage in this country, and people simply aren’t going to do this job without the possibility of tenure. The reasons are not complex. The job kinda sucks. It’s rewarding at times but often it’s just hard and time consuming. Granted, it’s not “hard” compared to jobs that subject one to hazardous conditions or manual labor, but it’s not easy. It takes over our lives. When we’re not in front of a classroom we’re at home grading and formulating lesson plans. In my case, it requires most of my time to handle three classes, and K-12 teachers teach a hell of a lot more than I do. And they are also burdened with surrogate parenting some or all of their students, depending on the location of the school. So teachers accept the 12 hour days and the salaries that range from good to “meh” to pretty bad in exchange for some job security. I can’t imagine who’s going to line up for 12 hour days, “meh” salaries, and at-will employment. If that’s going to be your job description, why would anyone choose to deal with 150 asshole kids every day to get it?
Don’t misunderstand me, I don’t believe that there would suddenly be no teachers without tenure. The job would be considerably less appealing, though, and only the current Recession-era lack of alternatives would keep talented people from pursuing other opportunities.
Until we start treating teaching as a profession, and not as a calling (or something for “the wife of” to keep herself busy), we need to have economic incentives to teach. If we’re not going to pay them well, then we will have to use other incentives. And tenure is, from a budgetary perspective, cheap.