Waiting for Superman-Video Analysis

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Emma Palmieri

Ed Reform

17 April 2016

Video Analysis: Davis Guggenheim, Waiting for Superman (2010)

In his 2010 film documentary Waiting for Superman, Davis Guggenheim combs through the many complexities of public education as he follows the stories of five families and the obstacles they must navigate through in order to ensure their kids receive the best (public) educations within their grasp. While all five children from the families in the documentary come from different backgrounds, cities, states, and economic brackets, Guggenheim illustrates for the viewer just how all five of these children are affected by even the smallest ripple effects in our public educational system. 

Four out of the five children live in poor, urban areas and are already attending (or will soon be forced to attend) failing public schools for elementary, middle or high school.  The first child we meet, Anthony, lives with his grandparents, never knew his mom, and has a father that died of a drug overdose while he was young.  Anthony and his grandmother recognize the importance of his education, and are entering him in the lottery to attend SEED Charter School.  Daisy is on the cusp of middle school, planning to attend one of the worst middle schools in LA if she does not get into her lottery choice of KIPP LA Prep.  Francisco is a first grader in the Bronx, already attending a failing school and struggling deeply with reading despite his mother’s best efforts), his choice is to attend the Harlem Success Academy.  Bianca is a kindergartner attending a $500 per month parochial school in Harlem, but because her mother struggles to make the tuition, they are hoping she will be chosen to also attend the Harlem Success Academy.  The final child, Emily, is an eight grader who live in an affluent area and would likely do very well in her public school, but her parents do not want her to attend a school that tracks its students, so they are entering her in the lottery for Summit Preparatory Charter High School.

In the first scene of Waiting for Superman, Davis Guggenheim describes how his perceptions of public school have changed since his last documentary (The First Year, 1999) to today as he becomes a parent with school-age children and conveys the struggles of the five families he follows with a single quote of his own: “Ten years later, it was time to choose a school for my own children.  And then reality set in-My feelings about public ed didn’t matter as much as my fear of sending them to a failing school.  And so every morning, betraying the ideals I live by, I drive past 3 public schools as I take my kids to a private school.  But I’m lucky-I have a choice”  (04:00).  The five families Guggenheim follows for the purpose of the documentary have the opposite experience, they are the “unlucky” ones, who must put their faith in a lottery or their local district schools.   

Throughout the documentary, key figures such as Geoffrey Canada, Michele Rhee, and Bill gates narrate the issues facing America’s children today.  Canada (president of the Harlem Children’s Zone) and Rhee (former controversial superintendent of Washington, DC 2007-2010) describe an abysmal system protected by bureaucrats, special interest groups and the ultimate iron shield-the teacher’s unions.  Michele Rhee, a Washington, DC superintendent famous for taking on the teacher’s unions and ruthlessly firing teachers and closing schools made one of the most compelling statements in the documentary when she described her journey of taking on teachers who view their jobs as “rights” instead of “privileges”.  Rhee decided that instead of offering tenured teacher’s contracts, she would offer merit based pay with incentive based bonuses.  When she was completely shut down by the teachers’ unions, she stated: “Now I see in more coherent ways why things are the way they are-it all becomes about the adults” (1:26:00).  What is compelling about this statement, is that whether or not one agrees with Rhee’s methodology, who is really vulnerable in this situation? Why do teachers feel so threatened by the idea of merit based pay?

  While issues of political agendas and how it affects our own children were a common theme in the documentary, The children of Waiting for Superman are living the reality.  Even though academics such as Richard Khalenberg and Halley Potter (A Smarter Charter) might criticize the growth of charter schools and their academic results, there is clearly something to be said when over 700 children are entering a lottery for just 40 spots at one charter school (which was the case for Francisco and Bianca and the Harlem Success Academy). All of the children we follow in the documentary had between a 5 and 50% chance of getting into their school of choice, all of which schools were charter schools.  Unfortunately for the children of the documentary, only Anthony and Emily were able to make it into their schools, while Bianca, Daisy, and Francisco will be left to the mercy of their local district schools.

   waiting for superman

(1:37:32) Bianca and her mother Nakia crying together after Bianca was not chosen in the lottery for the Harlem Success Academy. 

This documentary was compelling because it forces the viewer to look beyond their comfortable position as someone who “believes” in public schools and their teachers and instead look at the situation through the perspective of the student and the parents, who cannot stop time and wait for public schools to make a miraculous recovery before their child is due to enter a new grade or school next year.  The reality is that these kids need help, not hope, and the parents are turning to anything that offers an innovation from what they know is already failing.


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.