Waiting For Superman - DVD Review

'one of those documentaries that manages to astound with merely the basic facts which make up its wider argument'

An incredibly powerful and cinematic documentary, Waiting For Superman takes as its central thesis the fact that America's education system is fundamentally broken and that, ultimately, the nation is merely waiting for the titular superhero to swoop in and fix it. Director and narrator Davis Guggenheim presents compelling evidence to support his assumption. Did you know that only a few US states can boast a maths proficiency score of more than 50% at a certain age, for example? Or that Washington's is a lowly 17%? Or that it costs more to send someone to jail than it does to pay for them to be privately educated for the same period of time? It's one of those documentaries that manages to astound with merely the basic facts which make up its wider argument.

Guggenheim scores success too in the personalities he finds to add weight to his statistics and personal beliefs. There is playful suggestion here that characters such as Geoffrey Canada (who steals the show) might be the superhero the education sector is waiting for, if only his theories and ideas were taken and applied to the wider student body. Canada, charismatic and full of motivation to improve the lives of the children he teaches, is undoubtedly the star but spare a thought for Michelle Rhee, an unpopular Washington superintendent who, the film takes pains to show, is unconcerned with being unpopular if she can at least make a difference to the state's failing systems.

Most amazing of those systems is something called 'tenure' which, as described by Canada, is something you get if you 'stay in the job and stay breathing for two years'. It basically guarantees your job as a teacher. No one can sack you. You can get away with almost anything. You will not fall victim to the recession. This incredible level of protection opens the film's final third which falls over itself with eagerness to expose this and the even more balmy ways in which money is wasted delivering education (or not) to Americans every year.

The cinematic quality of Guggenheim's film really comes to fruition in this final third as the very literal lottery of getting into a good school is played out live. It's difficult not to empathise with the heartbreak some of the individuals experience in trying simply to get their children a good education and with it Guggenheim finds the perfect bullet point end to his argument. How, in the World's only true 'superpower' can this possibly be the best way to determine a child's future? How can this be the method through which we assign a good or bad education? How can the country possibly stand by and watch any longer? Compelling.

Look further...

Big Thoughts From A Small Mind discusses the film and the issues it raises with a teacher.


  1. Perhaps the most saddening thing for me about this stellar documentary was finding out afterwards just how much it 1) nitpicks the studies its uses to champion private and charter schools, 2) fabricates certain storylines to make them more emotional, and 3) ignores some of the basic pitfalls that will never go away with public education (e.g. public schools have to take everybody. From the brilliant whiz kid to the one who couldn't tie his shoes at 15, there's no choice and no real ability to kick out or punish beyond detention).

    When they do that it really detracts from some of its more admirable and accurate stances on issues such as tenure (though as I understand it this was originally put in to protect teachers from mass firings due to school board elections and constantly changing principals).

  2. I'm certainly not going to try and argue against any of those three points (mainly because I'm absolutely sure they're all correct!) but I do think all three of those criticisms apply to a huge amount of documentaries. Guggenheim has obviously got an agenda and he goes out intent on presenting it. I still think though that if you can see past the fact that he's obviously pushing for the charter school option, there's a lot of (apparently) very compelling arguments that are difficult to ignore.