More than 250 teachers from public and private schools in the Philadelphia area, and from Pittsburgh and other cities, gathered at the National Constitution Center on Sunday for a two-hour discussion about the state of teaching and education, part of a national conversation called "Education Nation."

With little electronic clickers that registered their choices on certain topics, 48 percent of the teachers in the Constitution Center's Kimmel Theater voted that merit pay for teachers should "in some way" be based on student performance - a middle-ground selection that also included choices of "completely" and "not at all."

They also chose poverty and family issues, plus lack of student motivation, as the biggest hindrances to learning; and from a list of five responses, they voted that teachers could perform better if they had more time to work with and learn from colleagues and had additional technology.

The town meeting was the lead event in a week of gatherings sponsored by the NBC and its local TV station, NBC10, seeking to create a dialogue with educators, policy-makers, and the public. The Education Nation program began in the fall in New York, and Philadelphia is its final leg after stops in Los Angeles and Chicago.

Inside the small theater Sunday, the town meeting was moderated by NBC News' Ann Curry with NBC10's Aditi Roy, who spoke with teachers about a gamut of issues, including budget cuts, standardized testing, and teacher training.

Philadelphia School Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman - facing deficits and massive cuts in funding - addressed the teachers, telling them that "if I had my way, we wouldn't cut anything" and that "it costs less to invest in our children now" than to deal with young adults who go astray later.

About 170 teachers packed the theater, with an overflow crowd of about 80 watching on a screen in one of the center's open spaces nearby.

"This is a good idea, but we should have had more room," said Tasha Russell, a technology teacher at Philadelphia's Roosevelt Middle School. She watched with the overflow crowd, which was not equipped with clickers to vote on issues. "It's a good thing," she said, "to bring teachers together about issues in education."

 "Although they should have prepared better for the overflow," said Nicole Corkery, of Philadelphia's James Alcorn Elementary, "it's a chance for a discussion."

Sunday's meeting will be streamed on and

Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or