Pushing elementary-age children into rigorous study in the name of reform is doing more harm than good, warns a new report that lays part of the blame on global economic pressures that have aroused competitive fervor.

Recent reforms aimed at making students more accountable and diligent may make sense for high schoolers, but often produce only short-term gains when applied to younger children and may actually burn them out, said the report being released today in Chicago at the annual convention of the National Association of State Boards of Education.The study, "Right From The Start: The Report of the NASBE Task Force on Early Childhood Education," urges states instead to encourage formation of "early childhood units" catering to the special developmental needs of 4-8 year-olds.

"The legitimate concern about the link between our economic future and the quality of schooling has fostered a competitive mentality for our educational enterprise, with unfortunate consequences for early segments of schooling," the report said.

"If education is seen as a contest that pits children against their peers, or a race against our foreign competitors, we risk teaching very young children the wrong academic tasks before they are ready, and we stimulate fears and pressure among parents," it added.

The 26-member task force that produced the report was chaired by NASBE president Richard Owens.

"This report may rattle the bushes a little, but what we're saying absolutely makes sense," Owens, a member of the Georgia Board of Education, said in an interview with The Atlanta Constitution.

"Preschool and early school years are crucial for children and their parents," he said. "Not everybody at this time is ready to jump full force into prekindergarten programs, but I think many of them are looking."