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Waiting for ‘Superman’

Waiting for ‘Superman’

The problem of drawbacks in the educational system of the United States is not new. Despite the fact that every year the state invests an impressive sum of money to the country’s public schools, the students’ success is far from satisfactory. Many students drop out of the school when they are in eighth or ninth grade because of many social and economic reasons. The causes of one’s failure to continue studying are related to poor background, low family income, one-parent family, and lack of motivation. Davis Guggenheim, the filmmaker of a documentary called Waiting for ‘Superman’, provides his audience with a different perspective on the real cause of the problems in the U.S. education system. Using various rhetorical techniques, the filmmakers establish the common ground with the viewers and offer to support the opinion they have developed. Since the techniques are rather effective, they require a more thorough analysis.

Problem of Education in the United States

Despite the fact that the United States of America is not a third-world country and has a comparatively better economic situation than many other states around the world, it has significant education problems. Some researchers claim that these issues stem from inequality of income distribution and technological innovation slowdown (Gordon, 2013). Other people insist that the problem of poverty deprives parents from sending their children to private schools, and the problem with public educational facilities lies in the wrong focus, lack of effective reforms, teacher unions and ignorance towards schools in some districts (Guggenheim, 2010). The country needs well-educated workers as they have better production. Gordon (2013) states that those employees that have a better expertise tend to receive higher wages than people without special education.  Professor Galston (n.d.) from the University of Maryland informs that the state of public education is so bad that a considerable number of students drop out without graduation. Similarly to Guggenheim, Galston (n.d.) insists that students from poorer backgrounds are failing their schools;, therefore, such schools’ programs need “emergency treatment”. Despite the fact that all American presidents launched some programs in order to reform the system of education and bring the United States back to its prosperity in education and economic of 1970s, none of them has worked as effectively as it was aspired to work. The Obama’s plan of reforms has some good points as it focuses on such aspects as tenure and teachers’ effectiveness (Partee, 2012), but it can also toughen the situation by the initiation of college reform that is aimed at making the schools more selective. In this case, many children will not be able to get higher education due to the fact that the schools they attended gave them insufficient knowledge.

Purpose, Audience and Argument of the Film

Waiting for ‘Superman’ is a documentary and its primary purpose is to make a research on some current problem. In case of this film, the issue under investigation is educational system in the United States. The audience of the documentary is very broad, since it involves not only teachers, educators, and officials in the sphere of education, but also parents, children, college and university students, and all people that by some means are or were related to public schools. The major argument of the film is focused on the state of education. The U.S. system of public education does not function in a proper way, since many people cannot obtain the knowledge they would need in the future. In simpler words, the people involved in controlling the education system do not try to do everything they can to solve the problem. Creating the documentary, Guggenheim (2010) pursued some goals. The filmmaker wanted to convince the audience that the public education system fails to ensure proper teaching of the U.S. children and make people protest against the currently existing norms and regulations in order to change the state of things. The creators of the documentary make the problem of education relevant to that of the neighborhood and life of society in general, in order to make the audience believe that the subject they analyze belongs to the issues of primary importance.

The major idea that is reflected in the film title is the concept about Superman. Since this character saves people, the filmmakers want to ask why he does not save children from the drawbacks of public education. Closer to the end of the film, it turns out that the superhero is an ordinary teacher who spends all his/her efforts to give children the best of what he/she has.

The director of the documentary creates a special rhetoric triangle including the speaker, the subject, and the audience (Guggenheim, 2010). There is a strong link between the speaker (narrator) and the audience. The speaker provides the information and numerous interviews in order to prove his argument to the viewers. His attitude to the subject is shown through the detailed description of the situation, as well as through support of the evidence with the facts, interviews, and statistics. Thus, explaining the topic, sthe peaker establishes the link between him and the subject, since the documentary is made for people. There is also a connection between the audience and the subject. The problem is explained to the viewers who are supposed to react in some ways to the information they obtain.

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In the very beginning of the documentary, the speaker provides an example from his own life, making the audience trust him more. In addition to that, by this example, the narrator expresses the opinion and attitude of many other citizens of the USA. Speaking about his frustration when he found out that the Superman did not exist, the man mentions he grew up in ghetto. Since poor people are often trusted more than rich citizens, the viewers will probably believe him and support his opinion. The example provided by the narrator is a typical ethos technique used to make the audience be on his/her side. It looks like the speaker wants to say: “I am just like you, so my words can be trusted”.

The major idea is expressed in the beginning of the documentary, so the audience can guess what the focus will be and, therefore, is prepared to the development of the claim. After that, the narrator establishes credibility. Evaluating high schools, Geoffrey Canada mentions that he had been working as a teacher for some time (Guggenheim, 2010). Because of this fact, the audience would consider him more aware of the real situation in public schools than some politicians who claim to know about the problem, but do not understand allaspects of it. Then some statistics is provided in the documentary. The numbers help the viewers evaluate the expenses on education and see whether there are significant changes in its state. The numerical data makes the narrator more trustworthy, as well as his own experience.

One important point is that the documentary has a big number of interviews of ordinary people, namely parents, children, educators. Since everyone who watches the film is somehow related to subject of education (he/she has the children the children attending the schools or recalls the years one did oneself or does now), the viewer feels rather concerned about the situation. The filmmakers establish credibility by including the viewpoints of respected officials and educators, such as Michelle Rhee, Jason Kamras, Steve Barkman, Geoffrey Canada, and others.


Since the documentary is built on real examples, it awakens some emotions in the viewers. Thus, the overall narration is based on the lives of five children and their educational abilities, predetermined by social and economic characteristics of their families. Another appeal to the emotions of the audience is surprising it. Astonishing statistics and shocking examples are used in order to make the viewers feel worried about the state of education in their own families and think of schools their children attend and the teachers that work with youngsters.

The next technique applied is the dramatic change of the focus. Starting recalling his contemplations about teachers in public schools, the narrator makes the audience a bit confused. The viewers had probably thought that the film would be about some politicians, well-known activists and leaders, so the idea about schoolteachers seems a bit strange. The change of focus and unpredictable statements helps the narrator to catch attention of the audience and make it more interested in watching the film than it was before the claim. By this technique, the speaker appeals to the emotions of the audience, surprising it.

Sometimes the speakers exaggerate the facts; the deliberate exaggeration is used in order to impress the audience more and call for action. Guggenheim (2010) states that parents, children, and educators should be concerned about current public schools situation. Another aspect is exigency. The narrator, along with other speakers, insists on the importance of an urgent action that could help find the solution for the problem. In addition to that, emotionally colored structures are used in order to stress the main points and influence the viewers. For the same reason, the speakers use metaphors, hyperbola, personification, and other stylistic devices.


Logical appeal to the audience is used in the documentary as well. For example, Guggenheim (2010) provides statistics. Since the numbers unarguably show that the situation is devastating, even skeptics and people who do not come under the influence of the emotional appeal and believe only facts are convinced. Moreover, the narrator uses generalization to summarize the main points. In most cases, inductive reasoning is applied, as when a specific example is given and the overall assumptions are made on the basis of this example.

Another logos technique is the unfolding of many arguments. Guggenheim arranges the information in a specific sequential order. In most cases, the narrator (or some of the speakers) introduces the topic, claiming its existence, and then describes what it is. For example, Geoffrey Canada speaks about tenure – a teacher’s contract, which ensures that it is almost impossible to fire a teacher until he/she decides to resign. Later, Guggenheim states the reason for creation of this contract.

Another important point to mention is the choice of language. The speakers rarely use some sophisticated structures or expressions. This technique is applied to keep the audience interested in the subject. Since the viewer understands everything, he or she continues watching the film and, what is more important, reflecting on the topic. Reflection is possible only if one understands all aspects of the situation. As the audience is rather broad for it includes people with different levels of education, the use of simple language is logical.

Logical appeal is represented by the use of cause and effect technique. Claiming that everything is bad in public schools because of many reasons, Guggenheim (2010) states that there is still a solution and promotes the idea of charter schools. In order to prove his point, the narrator uses another technique that appeals to audience’s logic. The director provides the statistics that is completely different from that provided earlier in the documentary. This data can be also regarded as a method of emotional appeal, since it gives people the hope that they have an alternative.

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The Effectiveness of the Techniques

The documentary is effective for many reasons, as it interests the viewers, convinces them to be concerned, and shows the real state of things in the American public education. Moreover, the filmmakers use various rhetorical techniques such as ethos, pathos, and logos in order to convince the audience, create some impression, and call for action. Since the vocabulary is not complicated, all viewers are supposed to easily understand the film, which makes it more effective.

The film is also effective because of the structure it has. The beginning of the film has an introduction – an example of first three and later five children, their learning, and then their families. The middle part contains major claims backed up with statistics. The life stories of children and their families develop. The ending includes the reflection and overall summary of the key aspects. All in all, the documentary achieves its goal.

Drawbacks and Inconsistences

Despite the fact that the film is rather effective and provides a lot of interesting information, it has some drawbacks and inconsistences. For example, the narrator and other people appearing in the documentary draw the attention of the audience to the point where the problem begins (their conversation with the mother of a child who does not do well at school because of the teacher’s insufficient work). This evidence makes the audience think that children do not get only As and Bs because of the teachers who cannot or do not want to share their knowledge with their students. The problem is that people appearing in the film do not evaluate other reasons for students’ failures. From a critical point of view, the claim about teachers’ fault is not objective, but since people need someone to place the blame on, teachers turn up to be the first in the row assumed guilty for the faults of others. Parents, officials, and society in general can make some mistakes resulting in children’s lack of education, as well as teachers can. The thing is that the speakers in the film do not cover this aspect because it could have presumably changed the position they try to make the audience occupy.

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After that, in order to explain their attitude, officials and educators appearing in the documentary place the blame on the governors. Politicians are blamed for all problems the country faces, and the citizens tend to support this idea. Playing on people’s stereotypes, the creators of the film impose the vision of the problem on the general audience.

Another idea is that the filmmaker wants the audience to accept is the fact that the teachers are superheroes, whereas teacher unions are the impediment to a reform. Therefore, at this point, unions are to blame for the low level of education. Since the teachers work under the contract, they cannot be fired even if they do not work effectively. Another drawback is excessive dramatization of the situation and loss of focus. One more failure of the film is avoiding representation of all viewpoints to the state of public education and major causes of its problems (Strauss, 2013).

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The documentary Waiting for ‘Superman’ focuses on the failure of public schools to provide children with sufficient knowledge for entering the college and better life in the future. The film is rather effective in terms of the rhetorical techniques used in it. Through establishing the credibility, organizing the narration in a sequential and logical way, and appealing to the emotions of the audience, the filmmakers achieve the goal they initially had. They make people concerned about current situation and encourage them to think more about their children’s future. However, despite the fact that in general the film is properly made and compiled, it has some drawbacks and inconsistencies. Thus, the director does not specify the one guilty of the situation, as at first he accuses the teachers, then politicians, and after that the unions. The narrator also fails to show all the approaches to the problem, selecting only those that support his opinion.