If you want to teach high school students real-world problem-solving skills, what better problem could there be than cutting $1.3 trillion from the federal deficit?

That’s the challenge Bozeman High School teacher Erica Schnee recently handed her government students.

Not only did students have to learn about the economy, Social Security and federal tax and spending policies, they also had to get together in groups of 12 and find a compromise that nearly all could agree on – something the congressional Super Committee tried and failed to do last year.

“It was just a really cool assignment,” senior Emily Seamons told Bozeman School Board trustees Monday night. She said she wanted to cut a lot of military spending, but another student in her group didn’t want to cut any, so they did some horse-trading to reach a compromise.

That was one example of the kind of significant changes coming to Bozeman schools, as educators strive to prepare kids for a 21st century world, where information is instantly available on the Internet or their iPhones, and they have to figure out how best to use that information.

“I’m speechless, I am in awe of everything presented,” School Board Chair Denise Hayman told a panel of 11 teachers, administrators and students who described the changes. “The education system – it’s going to change dramatically. I find it overwhelming, in a positive way.”

The changes are likely to mean less multiple-choice lessons, and more rigorous, demanding assignments that require students to apply what they’ve learned to solve real-world problems. The hot new term for this is “Quadrant D,” meaning it’s several levels of complexity higher than simple memorization.

Another major change is that Montana has adopted the nationwide “common core” standards, which spell out in detail what students should learn at each grade level, starting with English and math. The new standards, developed by state governors and education leaders, are more detailed and demanding than Montana’s current standards.

While the old standards emphasized reading literature, the new common core emphasizes getting students to read and understand informational texts, explained Sarah Hays, Bozeman schools’ curriculum director.

Bozeman schools are working hard to gear up for the changes, said Superintendent Kirk Miller, as the best way to improve student learning and create “a much brighter future” for today’s students.