Video Analysis: Waiting for “Superman”

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Waiting for “Superman” is a documentary which investigates the different ways in which education is failing students and the development of the American public education system throughout the years. Moreover, the documentary goes in depth on the role of charter schools and different educational reforms, and how these factors are producing results that may change the future of education. Through the eyes of five children(Bianca, Emily, Anthony, Daisy, and Francisco) who go through regular public education and everyday pressures, Guggenheim presents the different and difficult options that have hope to change the American education system and the repercussions of it.

In a review by the Washington Post, Waiting for “Superman” does not tell of any downfalls to charter schools and test scores of charter schools as compared to public schools. According to the review, evidence from a recent national study done by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University states that “only 17% of charter schools have better test scores than traditional public schools, 46% had gains that were no different than their district counterparts, and 37% were significantly worse” [1]. Furthermore, the review claims that the documentary does not focus at all on the effects of poverty for families in the education system. The film does not take into account the different backgrounds that each student is coming from and the special precautions needed to improve their way of learning effectively in any kind of school.

Waiting for "Superman" 00:18:26

The film initially starts with the repercussions of the NCLB (No Child Left Behind) act and goes in depth with the percentage of children proficient in reading and mathematics in each state, and how those test scores consequently take a toll on how children progress through the years once the test is done [2]. Although the film does bring into perspective the progress being achieved so far by district schools, the film fails to put forth evidence of how proficient students in charter schools are in the same subjects. There are achievements with entering college and graduation rates; however, there is never data demonstrating how well students are doing according to the NCLB act. The film continues to push on with the idea of standardized testing and does not take a definite opposition towards testing except for criticizing how there are different standards set in each state for proficiency.

Although the film fails to bring into perspective poverty, the filmmaker includes the background stories of the parents of the five children being filmed and their experience with education [3]. Moreover, the different places which are producing school called “dropout factories” in which determines the future of children in them, such as the parents of the children in the film. According to education reformer Bill Strickland, many of the children who go through these “dropout factories” are more likely to drop out and head to a prison than graduate form high school. The filmmaker uses his Bill’s own personal experience with a “dropout factory” to demonstrate the severe consequences of attending certain public schools now and the function they continuously serve since before the 1970s [4].

Waiting for "Superman" 00:23:42

The filmmaker uses personal stories such as Bills’ and also the five children who have hopes of being accepted into a charter school which as seen as their only option to improve the conditions they are in now because of the American public education system. Many of these stories “tug at the heart strings” for viewers and really demonstrate the pressure of being able to have a child attend a school that will change their future as opposed to having the child’s future predetermined by a district school. A lot of the pressure finally settles in for both the viewer and the children towards the end of the film with the lotteries.

Waiting for "Superman" 01:35;16

In the final scene of the film, the effect of incorporating the results of each lottery and the ultimate fate of each child really puts into perspective the harsh reality of charter schools. With each lottery, viewers are placed in the same shoes as those children and the same disappointment that fills both parents and students [5]. The disappointment of the inability to give the proper education that can change their child’s life for the better. Each lottery and counting down the slots just places that pressure and that hope, and it shows the difficult decisions needed to give everything for the students of tomorrow.

Throughout the film, it is obvious that the the way to “fix” what is going on in the American public education system is to reform to a setting smaller and more directly focused on student achievement: a charter school. The film does fail to tell of the achievements presented by charter schools on the same tests that prove public schools to be failing. However, the film does demonstrated very accurately how public schools are holding students back, and are destroying instead of creating futures for students.

[1].  Ayers, Rick. “What ‘Superman’ Got Wrong, Point by Point.” What “Superman” Got Wrong, Point by Point. The Washington Post, 27 Sept. 2010. Web. 24 Feb. 2013. <>.

[2]. Waiting for “Superman”, (00:18:26)

[3]. Waiting for “Superman”, (00:19:41)

[4]. Waiting for “Superman”, (00:23:42)

[5]. Waiting for “Superman”, (01:35:16)

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Veronica Armendariz

Currently a student at Trinity College with a strong interest in teaching mathematics, volunteering, and tutoring.

4 thoughts on “Video Analysis: Waiting for “Superman””

  1. Veronica,

    I enjoyed reading your analysis, as your film, unlike The Cartel, which I watched relied on many of the voices which my film was lacking. Waiting for Superman seems to have blended ethos, pathos and logos in its appeal to support charter schools. The Cartel had many holes, most glaringly not including a discussion of the impact of No Child Left Behind legislation. It was nice to hear about how that was covered in your documentary, even if in both of our documentaries many of the information presented is one-sided and data that is inconvenient to the image of charter schools being saviors is ignored.

    The excitement and devastation post-lottery scenes are some of the most powerful scenes in both of our films and for me prove that the personal appeal has more of a lasting impact than the statistics thrown at the viewer.


  2. Veronica

    I enjoyed reading your analysis simply because recently I did my source detective post on Waiting for Superman and we both agreed that the filmmaker fails to mention that there may be reasons outside of school such as poverty that can cause a child to perform low in the classroom. I watched The Cartel as well and like Rachael said in the previous comment, the lottery scenes are very powerful because the emotion from both students and parents show that they want to have the best education available. I think it would be nice if the director made a second film on the performances of the students that are now in the charter schools.


  3. Veronica, thank you for your thoughtful analysis. I saw “Waiting for Superman” years ago, and the personal stories were what touched me the most as well. In the film I reviewed, “Race to Nowhere”, it was also a series of emotionally charged personal stories that made the filmmakers’ claims more poignant. I can agree with Rachael’s assessment when she says that emotion seems to be more powerful in these films than data. I am always suspicious of documentaries that are heavy on the emotion and light on factual information. Both “Waiting for Superman” and “Race to Nowhere” are guilty of this. If there were a correlation between the data and the impact on individuals, we would expect to see a more balanced approach to the filmmakers’ arguments.
    Although biased in its approach, I do appreciate the attempt “Waiting for Superman” made to explain some of the structural causes for the lack of quality schooling options available to the children in the film. “Race to Nowhere” does very little to frame their position. The filmmakers depict American ‘achievement culture’ as a fantom that fell out of the sky. Although many of the families in the film seem to be middle class, the film mostly ignores the strong role middle class parents play in perpetuating this culture.

  4. This video analysis offers several insights regarding the film’s limited portrayal of student poverty as a factor in shaping educational outcomes (nice use of the Wash Post article) and how personalized stories are used to communicate the director’s key points.

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