A New Year is once again upon us. But whether 2004 will be happy or glum still is pretty much an open question. What is not in doubt, however, is that 2004 will be a pivotal year.

Seeing the future isn’t so easy. So for some of us, the start of a new year traditionally is a time for retrospection, although looking backward isn’t risk-free either.

As the late baseball legend Leroy “Satchel” Paige once put it: “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”

(Whether the current U.S. Secretary of Education, Rod Paige, is any kin to the Major Leaguer cannot be told, but it might be said that both became famous for their pitching skills.)

Paige–the ball player–had it right. What’s gaining on us, in my view, is sharp, technology-powered competition from around the globe. America’s mounting debt grinds away at our ability to prepare our teachers and students for the global economy. Meanwhile, other nations ramp up their commitment to high-tech education. Such programs are under way in parts of Europe, South America, the Far East, and on the Asian subcontinent–including, most especially, in India.

Most Americans, it seems to me, have the feeling that the United States is far out in front of the rest of the world–especially when it comes to technology. Little that our leaders are doing or saying serves to undercut that debilitating misperception.

Almost weekly, I talk to representatives of organizations with a global perspective. We discuss innovative technology programs under way in nations and education ministries around the world. Increasingly, the news is about programs and technologies one, two, or even three years ahead of where we are here in the United States.

As far as I can tell, this gathering competitive advantage elsewhere is not based on any true, pervasive technological superiority–at least, not yet. (The fact that our current tenuous status depends so heavily on imported scientists and technicians, however, is not a source of comfort.) Rather, the rising challenge from overseas seems to derive from a clearer recognition elsewhere of what technological sophistication means to a nation’s economic and security interests. Contrasting the accelerating programs “over there” with our own stalled or declining ones throws a lengthening shadow over our long-term prospects.

Right now, to be sure, an emerging developmental gap is only just becoming clear, but it isn’t likely to narrow by itself. Worse yet, awareness of this unsettling situation seems all but nonexistent here at home.

In fact, the actions of our leaders–cutting millions intended for technology training for teachers, for instance; retarding the flow of investment in education technology through the eRate, for example–would make you think we can afford complacency.

We can’t. The ill effects of an emerging tech-prep gap, combined with labor issues, already have diverted hundreds of thousands of U.S. jobs to other countries. High productivity levels–currently the single shining star in our economic firmament–are the direct result of investments in education and infrastructure made during the 1990s. Now–as you can read in report after troubling report throughout this issue–those investments are being dialed down, giving way to priorities deemed by some to be more pressing.

Security, health, and levels of taxation are important issues, to be sure. But America–provided it is blessed with wise leaders–is a nation that can serve and protect its citizens in the short term without selling short its need to prepare the next generation to succeed in a high-tech future. It depends on leadership. Beginning on page 34, you can read about the men and the woman who want our votes for president this year.

Deciding who will be president for the next four years is no small responsibility, but Washington is not the only place–and some might say it is the last place–to look for leadership. As always, the future depends most importantly on us.

Now, for better or worse, we have a whole new year to make a difference.

And as we grapple with that daunting task from day to day, we might do well to consider yet another sage saying of Satchel Paige: “You win a few; you loose a few. Some get rained out. But you got to dress for all of them.”