OPINION: We all know that education matters. In Australia, as elsewhere, an individual's educational attainment is a significant predictor of success and wellbeing throughout life. At the same time, we know through experience how hard it is to lift educational outcomes in a sustained way for all students. Research tells us teachers are the most significant in-school influence on student outcomes, but less about how to raise teaching quality in ways that directly improve student achievement.

Educationally, Australia performs well by international testing standards, but we have been forced to face evidence of a decline in the last round of PISA testing.

Done well, standardised assessments can provide an important picture of aggregate student achievement. As teachers know, however, they are only part of the picture.

The new importance of ''knowledge work'' has huge implications for education. Knowledge and skills have become the global currency, says the special advisor on education policy to the OECD's Secretary-General, Andreas Schleicher.

But, as he observes ''there is no central bank that prints this currency, you cannot inherit this currency and you cannot produce it through speculation. You can only develop it through sustained effort and investment by people and for people.''

And we clearly need to consider the type of investment we make.

To teach well is to meet the exacting professional standards of modern-day knowledge workers.

What do we do to ensure new and existing teachers have the knowledge, skills and resources to meet these standards?

Effecting a sustained, systemic, statewide and then national lift in student achievement depends on a similarly sustained lift in teaching quality.

We need to map a network of pathways for teachers who are moving into, through or re-entering our systems after a period of absence. This network needs to ensure teachers have the support they need to maintain currency of content knowledge and pedagogic practice.

We need to ensure teachers can access a broad and robust evidence base on the effectiveness of different pedagogic approaches in a range of circumstances.

Ensuring access to such a base is important but not in itself sufficient to lift the quality of teaching. The ways in which it is used to inform and shape classroom practice is of more interest.

Further, we need to develop a better understanding of how teachers expand their repertoire of teaching skills. This may involve rethinking our approach to teacher professional development.

In the past in Australia, the concept of classroom observation, teacher collaboration and peer review has sometimes been viewed as an attack on teacher professionalism and autonomy.

Our efforts to improve the quality of teaching in our schools must begin in collaboration with our education systems' greatest assets - our teachers.

At the same time, we need to ensure we have the right teachers in our schools in the first place.

High-achieving countries tend to share certain characteristics when it comes to the teaching profession, including the recruitment of teachers from among the best and brightest of an age cohort.

NSW data suggests, however, there is a way to go to realise this standard. In NSW last year, more than a quarter of direct school leaver entrants to initial teacher education courses had ATAR scores in the bottom half of the HSC distribution.

The OECD reports that the increases in teachers' effectiveness between the first and second years of their careers are much larger than any subsequent gains.

This puts the onus back on getting initial teacher education right, together with support for teachers in their first year of service.

A powerful strategy to build the capacity of all teachers lies in the design and delivery of quality initial teacher education.

According to the 2010 Staff in Australia's Schools survey, fewer than one-third of early career teachers rated their pre-service education course highly for teaching indigenous students, those with learning difficulties or students from different cultural backgrounds.

With much of the teaching quality agenda being debated nationally, what imperative is there for collective action in NSW?

Perhaps we should take a leaf from the 21st-century skills (cyber)book, which emphasises the importance of communication and collaboration alongside critical thinking and problem solving.

One thing we have not done particularly well is foster the most productive working relationship between the school education sector and the educational research community. This is essential if we expect teachers to embrace the quantitative and qualitative evidence base of their profession, as well as developing the art of its practise.

To create the best system possible, we need to understand the nature and value of each other's roles. From as an educationalist's perspective, it is incumbent on me to ensure advice to government is informed by the best evidence available, whatever that demonstrates.

From my links with the research community, it is also important for me to acknowledge the exciting, sometimes frustrating, parameters of the policy window.

Dr Michele Bruniges is NSW Director-General of Education and is Adjunct Professor in UNSW's School of Education. 

This extract of her speech delivered at UNSW first appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald