As I pore over this month’s issue of eSchool News and think about this bright, new school year brimming with hope and promise, I’m reminded of the raccoon on our refrigerator.

The little guy is pictured on the front of a rectangular, magnetic card. The photo is of a baby raccoon clinging precariously to a single, slender branch. Kitchen counsel: “Confidence is what you feel just before you fully understand the situation.”

This month’s issue features plenty of reasons to be confident. It’s chock full of upbeat stories about high-tech solutions that can transform education.

Take our two eSN Special Reports, for example: One is on the full-fledged arrival of Informed Instruction, a new aid to pedagogy powered by sophisticated software systems. Informed instruction not only can enhance the classroom experience but also can measure student progress on the fly, provide real-time feedback to educators, and even propose resources pegged to the specific standards that need reinforcement (Page 25). The other is on the emergence of IP Telephony as a practical, alternative technology that can enhance communication and provide significant reductions in operating costs (Page 41).

And check out the “Virtual Gorilla” project, an innovative program that helps teach middle-school science (look three inches to your right). Or read about the helmet that offers hope for ADHD kids (Page 24) or the story about how new technologies are curbing pollution on the school bus (Page 64). All this inspires confidence.

But then there are the stories that keep me up at night. In sum, they make me worry that the United States is lounging on its laurels. I fear Americans have a complacent (and ill-informed) view of the world. We’re so convinced we’re Number One that we fail to notice that many other countries now have better infrastructure than we do, newer roads and buildings, better consumer technology.

For years, the precious freedoms and material prosperity of the United States have attracted to our shores the best and brightest from around the world. Thank goodness!

Yet as totalitarian regimes fade into memory and other nations elevate their standards of living, it would not be prudent to assume the Statue of Liberty and the Mighty Dollar will always have the drawing power they once had–at least not for the educated foreigners who so often nowadays are our doctors, scientists, and engineers.

Consider, for instance, the emerging trend of U.S. workers from India. They’ve begun to repatriate to their motherland. Thanks to technology-driven globalization, their American-made skills now find gainful employment in India at salaries that underwrite a level of comfort on the Indian economy that would be completely unavailable to them in the United States.

Progress in Pakistan, India, China, Ireland, Malaysia, Russia, and on and on means relying on “guest workers” and immigrants to fulfill vital functions is no longer such a good idea. And as you’ll notice when you peruse our Front Page stories, leading U.S. technology companies aren’t waiting for pokey public policy to remedy the situation.

Northface University should be a blaring wake-up call for American Education. Likewise, IBM’s decision to release open-source tools to schools around the world (Page 18) contains portents of troubles to come at home. Bring us the raw material we need to perpetuate the corporation, declare the multinationals.

Swift, decisive action can be what’s best about American business. The dark side, though, is a tendency toward short-term thinking. The decision to leave liberal arts out of the technology curriculum at Northface might be a symptom of the latter phenomenon. But how much can educators criticize if we force corporations to invent their own universities?

Home-schooling, virtual education, for-profit school chains, proprietary charter schools, corporate-driven universities–all these are a society’s chaotic attempts to come to grips with the underlying problem. We’re not comfortable with American education, and the world is breathing down our necks.

But enough. Hey, it’s a brand-new school year. Time for the rising to begin. The ranks of talented, committed educators are legion and, at last, the tools exist to do the job for every student.

Let’s pick up those tools, learn to use them, and get the job done. It won’t be easy, but we have no choice. If we don’t, we’ll find ourselves out on a limb like that little raccoon, hanging on for dear life, and ready to take a fall.