As the Utah Education Association held its annual convention this week, there was much of the usual talk about education reform. One item - not on the immediate UEA agenda, but certainly much-discussed in the background - is the need for a longer school year.

The 180-day school year is an American institution, as much a part of the national psyche and the national calendar as the 40-hour work week. But it is time - actually way past time - to rethink the concept.The Ogden Board of Education is entertaining a proposal for a pilot project that would keep students in school four more weeks a year or 20 school days.

A similar proposal was made last January for the state as a whole. That proposal - sponsored in the Utah House of Representatives by Salt Lake Republican Larry V. Lunt - also would have increased the Utah public school year by 20 days but only in increments of two days each year over a 10-year period. It never made it out of the Senate, mostly because of concerns about the cost.

The Ogden proposal, which just recommends a feasibility study and would affect only two elementary schools, would give the state a chance to explore the idea on a limited basis. The difference in the Ogden approach is that it would expand by 20 days all at once and defray much of the expense by giving teachers an extra day off each week and filling in with substitutes and para-pro-fes-sionals.

The proposal has been criticized by some teachers, parents and others because of added costs, concerns over the quality of substitutes, less room to work in family vacations, and similar problems. Those same objections have been raised in Maryland, where the State Board of Education recently voted for a monthlong addition to the school year.

Yet Ted Bell, a Utahn who is a former U.S. secretary of education, says the Ogden proposal is "very promising." He is convinced that the use of teachers from outside the education profession can work if the substitutes are carefully trained and work under the supervision of a qualified, certified teacher.

The current 180-day school year certainly doesn't keep U.S. students competitive with German students, for example, who spend 235 days in school each year, or Japanese students, who have a 240-day school year. American students perform very poorly compared to those in other industrial nations.

There is room for reasonable people to disagree on how a longer school year should be implemented and paid for. But there ought not to be any disagreement over the urgent need for it.

A longer school year, perhaps phased in an extra day or two a year over the next decade, would not only provide more time for students to learn but could also send a message that learning - and teaching - are something that students and society take seriously.