Waiting for “Superman” Video Analysis

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Among the many takeaways from Guggenheim’s “Waiting for ‘Superman'” documentary is that which correlates the problems of failing neighborhoods with the problems of failing schools, which is highlighted in the scene below.

Time: 22:41-23:45

Source: “Waiting for ‘Superman'”

In this scene is where an age-old debate is turned on its head and then given substance with evidence in the scene that follows. Educators of the past, as Guggenheim discusses, had thought that poor and crime-ridden neighborhoods produced children with the nature of their surroundings embedded in their DNA, and thus schools were infiltrated by these children and were doomed to fail. This seemed then and seems now like the excuse made by educators to dilute the issues of their failing education systems. The example made by an educator in the film shows that there were plenty of students entering the schools initially, but the change between the number of enrolled students from freshman year to sophomore year was drastic. The situation is easy to imagine: students begin motivated to learn and search for a life beyond their impoverished neighborhoods, but obtain the sentiment that there is no future for them when they aren’t being educated properly.

The response that Welner would have to the film overall would be one of disagreement with not only the portrayal of the charter school application process but the portrayal of the schools’ success. The concept of charter schools are discussed in the movie as a shining light for parents fed up with the public school system. The depiction of Charter Schooling in Redwood, California and other areas is that charter schools were more motivated to provide disadvantaged children with a better education. What we see in the film is the tragedy of being victim to the lottery system; what we don’t see is the complication with the system of getting into the lottery, as Welner discusses can involve lengthy applications, conditional acceptance into the lottery, the requirement of certain documents in application, etc. For this reason Welner would appreciate the reality of charters displayed in the end of the film but would desire more depth in the depiction of their formulation.


Guggenheim, Davis. Waiting for “Superman.” 2010. Film.

Welner, K. G. (April 2013). The Dirty Dozen: How Charter Schools Influence Student Enrollment. Teachers College Record.

Why Should We Wait For Superman?

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One of the saddest days of my life was when my mother told me Superman did not exist. I was like what do you mean he’s not real. And she thought I was crying because it’s like Santa Claus is not real and I was crying because there was no one coming with enough power to save us.

-American social activist and educator, Geoffrey Canada



In Waiting For Superman (2010), director Davis Guggenheim explores the problems that exist within our educational system. Through a series of interviews with educational reformers such as Geoffrey Canada, and Michelle Rhee, and various families that portray the different faces of educational struggles, Guggenheim exposes the struggles many children face. Guggenheim centralizes the theme of “the lottery” in his film to describe what many families fear as their only and last chance. He focuses on charter schools and the promises that these schools have on their children, and how hopefully all of the children he interviewed receive the chance they deserve.


Waiting For Superman sheds light on the variety of problem parents, educators, administrators, and children face with education today. About four minutes into the film, the director Davis Guggenheim explains that the problem with the American Educational system is that we have a variety of schools that are considered as “bad,” and very few that are considered “good” or even “great” schools. Those great schools in turn, are extremely selective and most times, families earn a seat in the school by what Guggenheim describes as luck. He mentions that great schools are now offering seats to inner-city students through what he describes as a lottery. A lottery involves parents filling out an application and being given a number that would either be handpicked, computer generated, or chosen by a plastic ball. Guggenheim follows the stories of three families, the Esparza family, the Hill family, and the Jones family. All of the children’s parents show discontent in some form or shape towards the situation their children face, and test their luck within the lottery system.



Geoffrey Davis on What Makes a Good School , Waiting For Superman (10:53)

Guggenheim introduces this perpetuating problem with our educational system by describing what “good schools” are. At 10:53, American social activist and educator, Geoffrey Canada notes that he would not had been as successful as he is if he attended his zone high school- Morris High School, in the South Bronx, NY. He questions what was the driving force behind the deterioration of our educational system. Through his interview with Guggenheim, Canada implies that the reasoning behind our failure lies in the fact that no one wants to take responsibility for our failing system, including all of our Presidents who were the first ones to promise change.


Maria Esparza, Waiting For Superman 13:26

Guggenheim accentuates the problems that exist in our educational system through a series of interviews he holds with the families he followed throughout Waiting for Superman. In an interview with Francisco Esparza’s mother, he asks her to describe the school that her son attends (13:26) and she tells him that she does not know, because the moment one walks into the building, one is confronted by a security guard who will not let anyone in. Mrs. Maria Esparza is seen throughout the entire film trying to get into contact with her son’s teacher through various phone calls and letters in order to track her son’s progress, and receives no responses. In fact, her son’s teacher tells him that she does not need her sons work. That one scene explains one of the main reasons why our educational system is considered one of the worst. Within inner-city schools there is very little parent-teacher interaction. During her interview, Maria goes on and explains that her son is enrolled in one of the third largest school that is overcrowded in the Bronx. For most of the families interviewed public education was the only option that they had.


Visual Map provided by Guggenheim on Failure by State, Waiting for Superman (16:30)

One particular scene that stands out in the entire documentary film, is at 16:30, where Guggenheim explains what some thought to be the savior of Education reform- the No Child Left Behind Act. Guggenheim strategically chose one of former President’s George W. Bushes’ speeches on the No Child Left Behind Act. In one scene, G.W.B states “I understand that taking tests aren’t fun…too bad.” Guggenheim had introduced NCLB as the remedy to our educational system, but portrayed George W. Bush as cold, and ultimately uncaring through his words. Through the NCLB act, the United States is to meet 100% proficiency in mathematics and reading by 2014. Guggenheim stated that in many states, eighth graders were below 20% in mathematics proficiency, and that in most states, when tested for reading proficiency, eighth graders scored between 20% and 35% of reading on grade level. Through these numbers, Guggenheim is portraying how much of a failure the No Child Left Behind Act was. Although most of the children, under this law are required to be tested on their proficiency, many are not passing or even reading and writing at grade level.


Roosevelt High School in Los Angeles, Waiting for Superman (21:03)

Guggenheim introduces Daisy, a young girl from Los Angeles who aspires to be a veterinarian and a surgeon, because she feels the need to help those in need. Guggenheim follows her path to Medical School by bringing forth Daisy’s chances of getting into Medical School based on the education she would be receiving in her zone-schools. At 21:03, the director introduces Roosevelt High School, one of Los Angeles’ zone-schools and an institution that is considered a “drop-out factory.” He notes the fact that only 3 out of every 100 students at Roosevelt graduate with the classes necessary in order to be considered for a four-year institution. He also mentions the fact that only 57% of its’ students graduate.


Davis Guggenheim explores what exactly drives the problem to increase within the schools that are considered as “bad” schools. He mentions the fact that certain teachers are given tenure, and that because of tenure; they are protected by contracts and allowed to have their job, regardless of their performance. Many educational reformers, teachers, principals, parents, and even the media recognize this, yet many schools fail to fight the system and fire teachers for their poor work.


Throughout the entire film, Guggenheim suggests that Private Schools may be one of the solutions for parents who seek to give their children a better education. Through Nakia and Bianca Jones’ interviews, Guggenheim portrays the struggles and successes of a family whose child is enrolled in a private parochial institution. Bianca Jones’ mother- Nakia, a single parent has her child enrolled in a parochial school, and struggles every month to make payments for her daughter’s tuition. Nakia chooses to keep her child enrolled despite the monetary problems. He suggests that private schools are a better solution during the beginning of the film, when he himself mentions that he drives past public schools on a daily basis to drive his own children to private schools.


Guggenheim explicitly states that “our schools haven’t changed, but the world around them has” (01:07:22), and because of this in order for our school systems to better, they have to be reformed to fit every child’s standards. Guggenheim models Summit High School, in Redwood, CA- a high school in where it’s students are not tracked as a model school. The director mentions how a middle class suburban family chose to send their child there because they had that option. The director also pays much attention to many charter schools throughout the country, that are much smaller in size and that have focuses, such as the arts. The only problem that exists with these particular schools is the fact that many of them are very small in size and run through the unfair lottery system.  Guggenheim repeatedly states towards the end of the movie that the only thing that works in education reform is “applying the right accountability standards.” Although Guggenheim does not interview all different kinds of families, including those success stories- he does an excellent job at giving face to those families who are left behind because of the lottery system and a run down educational system.


On the Waiting For Superman website, Director Davis Guggenheim suggests the viewer take action by signing a petition that advocates for World-Class educational standards for all U.S. students.

Waiting for Superman. Dir. Davis Guggenheim. Paramount Vantage, 2010. Web.

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. <http://voices.washingtonpost.com/answer-sheet/guest-bloggers/what-superman-got-wrong-point.html>.

[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)