Waiting for Superman is a documentary by Davis Guggenheim about the failing education system in the United States that is comprised of interviews, animation, and historical footage. Guggenheim covers topics such as school choice, tracking, alternatives to traditional schools, and issues surrounding teachers unions and student achievement.
The film focuses on different families, all with unique circumstances and how each utilizes the choice system. One parent, Nakia Whitfield, chose to pay tuition at a parochial school, just across the street from their home. Her income is limited she struggles to pay the $500 cost of tuition, every month, in order to giver her a daughter a quality education, knowing that her chances in the public school system are low. When Whitfield falls behind on payment because her hours are cut, the school does not allow Bianca to participate in her graduation ceremony. Whitfield later seeks other school options for Bianca. Each family in the film is faced with a set of challenges and all play a different role of parent involvement in the child’s education. Each parent is conflicted with keeping their child in the traditional school and seeks options which ensure their child will make a better transition to higher education. Another student, Daisy, wishes to have a career in the medical field but is destined to for her district’s high school which holds a mere 47% graduation rate.(Guggenheim 21:26) Her parents choose to enroll her in a KIPP magnet school knowing her fate if she does not receive a better education, her father is currently unemployed and her mother works cleaning hospital that Francesca desperately hopes to practice in.
Another family, who lives in an affluent neighborhood a few miles away from San Francisco told a different story. The high school in student Emily’s district, located in Silicon Valley, tracked students. For Emily, whose test scores were lower than average, this meant that she would not be receiving the best education that her neighborhood could afford. The option for Emily was to enroll into Summit Prep Charter School where tracking students is not practiced. (Guggenheim, 1:00) Summit Prep, like the other traditional school alternatives featured in the film, has a lottery. Emily will be competing for one of only 110 spaces out of 455 (Guggenheim 1:06). Students Daisy, Francisco, Anthony, and Bianca apply to get into charter schools but only one, Anthony, gets in. The scene is emotional and leaves us with little hope for the students future.
Guggenheim, at times, seems anti-union and blames strict contracts that teachers are under for the inability for schools that are under performing to fire “bad teachers”, while also highlighting the nation’s largest teachers union with their strong political ties with presidential candidates. It seems that the message being delivered is that teachers are undeserving of tenure and that unions hinder a school’s ability to have good educators. What Guggenheim fails to cover is there is some need for unions in charter schools, as it is noted that only 1 in 5 charter schools are high performing. Though unions can be problematic in certain districts, they have the ability to improve a school’s culture and achievement rate. (Kahlenberg, Potter pg. 34)
Guggenheim, Davis. Waiting for “Superman.” 2010. Film.
Kahlenberg, Richard D., and Halley Potter. A Smarter Charter: Finding WhatWorks for Charter Schools and Public Education. Teachers College Press. 2014.