The Illusion of Waiting for “Superman”

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In the 2010 documentary Waiting for “Superman”, Davis Guggenheim portrays the American education system through a critical lens as he follows a few students through the process of being accepted into charter schools. He begins the documentary with an overarching view of the American education system across large cities in the country – New York City, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and so on. A pivotal scene in the documentary revolves around the idea of the “lemon dance”, for which Guggenheim uses a moving visual diagram to illustrate (44:01). Essentially, the lemons are the bad teachers which principals cannot fire because of their contracts and/or tenured status. At the end of the school year they do a dance with their principals where, hopefully, they are danced off into other schools. The cycle continues each year, until the lemons populate in certain schools. This was a crucial scene because it visually and realistically represented how bad teachers are pushed around from school to school; because of their tenured status and/or contracts, they cannot be fired. Instead of making efforts to completely remove the lemons or improve them, they are pushed around from school to school, which is not a solution to the education problem. The way Guggenheim’s team edited this scene shows how easy it can be to hope that as a principal sends of a bad teacher, a less bad teacher will take their place. 

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A large portion of the documentary is dedicated to outlining the problems with the American education system, such as with school governance (Guggenheim 30:59), teacher tenure and firing (Guggenheim 46:20), schools as “dropout facilities” (Guggenheim 22:00), teachers’ unions, and so on. All problems listed are not attributed to the students, but to the bureaucratic system. However, from the latter half of the documentary onward, Guggenheim portrays that there is hope for American education, mainly through charter schools. The filmmakers’ theory of change seems to be one of parents finding better alternatives than traditional public schools for their children, such as Harlem Success Academy, KIPP LA, and SEED. The guardians and parents portrayed in the film were those who were actively engaged in their students’ educations. In other words, guardians and parents who either are not interested or who do not have the time to be interested miss out on better their children’s educations; their stories are missing from this documentary. Toward the end of the documentary, as students and their families were en route to charter school lotteries, there was a feeling that these families were entirely banking on these schools to save their children (Guggenheim 1:29:10). They seemed to have no other choice to better their children’s lives.

Given, the title of the documentary – Waiting for “Superman” – there is a sense that Superman will never arrive. The filmmakers’ desired goal is to improve the American education system, but knowing that not every child can be saved. There are limits to one person, which are parallel to the limits of one system. Hence, there are alternatives to traditional public schools – private schools, magnet schools, charter schools, and technical schools, for example. But, for this theory to be effective, it requires families actively engaged in their children’s educations.


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